Pubdate: Sun, 14 Jul 2013
Source: Rutland Herald (VT)
Copyright: 2013 Rutland Herald
Author: Brent Curtis


Vermont's court diversion programs are watching for the impact of a
new law decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana.

Put into effect at the start of this month, the new law makes
possessing an ounce or less of marijuana or up to five grams of
hashish a civil rather than criminal offense.

But the new law also includes big incentives for violators under age
21 to enroll in the state's court diversion programs -- a process
usually used to divert those accused of minor crimes into a system
that addresses offenses through community restoration efforts and
other redemptive activities in exchange for purging the criminal charge.

Vermont court diversion programs may find themselves busier due to the

"We don't know what to expect at this point," said Willa Farrell,
director of the Vermont Association of Court Diversion Programs in

"It could be a lateral move, but it wouldn't be a surprise if we see
an increase."

Farrell delivered that same message to directors of the 14 county
diversion programs who gathered July 10 for an annual meeting in Randolph.

Marijuana possession cases already account for a large part of the
diversion caseload in the state, Farrell said, estimating that as much
as 25 percent of all cases referred to diversion by local prosecutors
involved small amounts of marijuana.

Prosecutors won't refer those cases to diversion any more thanks to
the new marijuana law, but incentives in that legislation could have
young people seeking the program out, Farrell said.

The penalties outlined in the law are steeper for offenders under age
21 -- starting at $300 and a 90-day license suspension for first
offenders and doubling to $600 and a 180-day license suspension thereafter.

But those penalties can be avoided if offenders complete court
diversion and a new youth substance-abuse safety program being created
to educate and screen participants to determine their levels of drug

Since roughly half of the marijuana cases referred to diversion in the
past featured offenders under 21, Farrell said she wouldn't be
surprised to see a significant increase in the caseload due to the

How law enforcement officers respond to the new law also remains to be
seen, she said.

While possession of small amounts of marijuana is no longer a criminal
act, the drug itself is still illegal to possess and it can be seized
by police who can use it to justify further searches.

"That's the big unknown, how many tickets police will write," Farrell
said. "Some of the law enforcement officers I've spoken to have
indicated that it's easier and faster to write a civil ticket, and the
burden of proof is lower, so they expect to see more."

But Brandon Police Chief Christopher Brickell, whose term as president
of the Vermont Association of Chiefs of Police ended at the start of
June, said he's skeptical of that prediction.

"It won't change in theory the way law enforcement is doing their
jobs," he said of the new law. "It's simpler, yes, to write a civil
ticket but you're still going to have paperwork to do."

And unlike some other illegal drugs like cocaine and heroin, marijuana
generally isn't the target of investigators.

"It's always been something that comes along in other cases," Brickell
said. "We're not out looking for it in small quantities."

On the other hand, Springfield Police Chief Douglas Johnston, who took
over as president of the chief's association, said it was entirely
possible that officers who in the past may have seized small amounts
of marijuana without writing a criminal charge might now be more
inclined to write a civil ticket.

"It's got the potential for more activity," he said. "It could be a
good thing. It might be able to keep kids from getting into harder
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