Pubdate: Fri, 19 Jul 2013
Source: Manchester Journal, The (VT)
Copyright: 2013 New England Newspapers, Inc.
Author: Brandon Canevari


BENNINGTON COUNTY - The decriminalization of marijuana is now in
effect, but some local officials are waving cautionary flags. They
believe that it may not only result in increased public use, but cause
some other problems as well.

The new law - which went into effect July 1 - prevents Vermont
residents from being arrested for carrying less than an ounce of
marijuana. The law removes the criminal penalties associated with
possession of small amounts of cannabis and replaces them with civil
fines ranging from $200 to $500 depending on whether a person is a
repeat offender. For those under the age of 21, the offense will be
treated the same as possession of alcohol, which would include
referral for court diversion for the first and second offense.
However, failure to complete the diversion program would result in a
$300 fine and a 90-day driver's license suspension for the first
offense and a $600 fine and 180-day license suspension for the second
offense. A third offense could result in up to 30 days in jail, a $600
fine or both if diversion was not completed for both the first and
second offenses. A person under 16 may have a delinquency petition
filed and must be given a chance to participate in the diversion
program unless the courts determine otherwise.

The new law is one that Chief of the Manchester Police Department
Michael Hall believes will lead to more open use of the drug. Still,
that is not his greatest concern. Hall said he believed that the new
legislation will have disastrous consequences because it sends the
message to youngsters that using marijuana is no longer against the

"I think you're going to see some tragic results of what they've done
here," Hall said. "It's just irresponsible leadership in my opinion. I
honestly believe that there are going to be some people that are sorry
that they did this, but I hope I'm wrong."

Another problem facing law enforcement officials, Hall said, is that
the legislature did not put anything in the law to "prepare themselves
for collateral damage." As an example, Hall said that lawmakers did
not include a process within the law allowing police officers to deal
with drivers operating under the influence of marijuana.

When discussions were occurring about the issue during the last
legislative session, Hall said that one argument made in favor of
decriminalizing marijuana was that it would not result in a criminal
record for students - thereby no longer preventing them from gaining
enrollment into college. The argument though is one that both Hall and
Chief of the Rutland Police Department James Baker said is untrue.

Baker recently served as an interim police chief in Manchester prior
to Hall's appointment to that post.

"My personal belief is that we had earlier what the bill provides
now," said Baker. "I mean there was a lot of conversation that just
wasn't factually true about people being convicted for small amounts
of marijuana. It's just not factually true; it wasn't happening. And a
lot of those folks were not receiving criminal records."

Vermont State Senator Richard Sears (D - Bennington) - a proponent of
the new legislation - said he voted for the bill because it "deals
with the reality of a frequently used substance." The important piece
of the legislation to Sears was how the new law would deal with
individuals under the age of 21.

With the new law now in place, Sears said that he does not believe
that it will lead to increased use.

"I think we became the 19th or 17th state to decriminalize small
amounts of marijuana and those states have not seen what I would
consider a huge increase," said Sears. "But obviously what happens in
Colorado and Washington we'll be looking at carefully, and those are
states [that] basically legalized it, it's much different. I think
there you would see an increased use."

Baker believes the decriminalization of marijuana is just the
beginning. He said it is not inconceivable to think that the
legalization of marijuana is not too far behind.

"My concern is that there is a heavy lobbying effort going on from the
national level to bring complete legalization of marijuana," said
Baker. "I think we saw it with the medical marijuana and now we've
seen it with the decrim (inalization) and my prediction is that maybe
not next legislative session, but the legislative session after that,
there are certain legislators in the state who are being influenced by
out of state lobbying and you will see a move for legalization."

The law comes at a time when Bennington County has seen more drug
activity than in the past. On Jan. 16 law enforcement officials
conducted Operation County Strike - an initiative they had been
working on since mid- August 2012. The operation cost $115,000 to
carry out - $37,000 of which was spent directly on drug purchases that
included heroin, cocaine, crack cocaine, morphine, hallucinogenic
mushrooms, opiates, prescription pills and marijuana as well as for
information from informants.

Over 120 individual controlled purchases of illegal drugs were made.
In the end, 68 defendants were arrested resulting in a total of 467
criminal charges.

In 2011, the Manchester Police Department arrested 15 people for
crimes related to drugs. That number nearly doubled in 2012 with
police arresting 28 people on drug-related charges. So far this year
those numbers are down with only nine people being arrested about
midway through the year.

The growing trend of marijuana use was evident as far back as 2000.
According to data on the number of admissions to substance abuse
treatment services between 1998 and 2008, reflected in a study
conducted by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services
Administration, Vermont was one of the top 10 states in the country
nearly every year for primary marijuana admissions per 100,000
population for ages 12 and above.

In 1998, Vermont ranked 14th in the nation with 156 admissions per
100,000. By 2002, however, Vermont ranked third with 238 admissions
behind only Oregon and Iowa who had 292 and 259 admissions,
respectively. From 2003 to 2008, Vermont ranked between sixth and
eighth in the nation - the exception being 2004 when it ranked 13th
with 174 admissions.

In 2008 - when Vermont ranked sixth along with Iowa - there were a
total of 1,227 admissions. The data showed that of those, men used
marijuana more frequently than women and adolescents between the ages
of 12 and 19 years-old were by far the biggest users. Twenty-to
24-year-olds came in a distant second and 25-29 year-olds accounted
for another substantial portion of overall consumption.

According to a survey done by Healthy Vermonters 2020, the percentage
of students in 2011 in grades 9-12 who had ever used marijuana was
higher than any other kind of drug at 39 percent. Cigarettes came in a
distant second at 24 percent with prescription drugs and hallucinogens
coming in third and fourth at 14 and 10 percent, respectively.

Organizations like The Collaborative are trying to combat the problem
through a number of programs. Some of the programs are "passive" when
it comes to attempting to prevent or educate the youth about drug use
or drug abuse. Instead, these passive programs focus more on providing
teenagers with an alternative to using drugs by providing free events
they can participate in - such as free skates at Riley Rink. In
addition to the passive programs, The Collaborative also has "active"
programs, which are focused on education - the Refuse to Use program
being one example.

Those students who participate in the Refuse to Use Program must sign
a pledge to be drug and alcohol free and attend five classes dealing
with drugs and alcohol, according to Executive Director of The
Collaborative Maryann Morris. In return, students engaging in the
program receive free passes to Stratton Mountain. The Collaborative
tracks those students participating in the Refuse to Use program and
if it is learned that a student was caught using drugs or alcohol
their pass is revoked.

At least one local school - Burr and Burton Academy - entertained the
possibility of mandatory drug testing for those students who were
going to participate in extra curricular activities as part of their
drug and alcohol policy.

The school was considering enacting the policy as a way of being
proactive in addressing drug and alcohol use, but ultimately decided
not to initiate it in the 2013-2014 school year. However, Tashjian did
not rule out the possibility of it being incorporated into the
school's drug and alcohol policy at a later date.

"The most compelling [reason] is that it's simple and it creates clear
accountabilty. The reasons not to do it are it's really attacking a
symptom rather than getting at kind of the root cause and culture in
our society," said Headmaster of BBA Mark Tashjian. "It's emphasis
[is] on catching kids doing something wrong and applying consequences
rather than working on kind of the proactive change in culture to get
kids to make different choices."

The invasive nature of drug testing was also a problem with mandatory
drug testing, Tashjian said. He said that some would argue that the
school should hold itself to a higher standard and that drug testing
did not show respect or trust among the students.

Even with marijuana now being decriminalized, both Baker and Morris
said people should realize that there are health risks associated with
the use of marijuana.

"There's a lot of risk of harm for health and there's a lot of
misinformation out there around risk of harm for health," said Morris.
"That's what we talk about in our Refuse to Use classes mostly is that
risk of harm healthwise if you were to choose to use marijuana."
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