House Committee Appears Set To Approve Marijuana Decriminalization

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A key House committee took testimony on Thursday about whether possessing small amounts of marijuana should be a civil offense, not a crime. It’s an issue that is moving more quickly through the states, four months after Colorado and Washington State legalized pot.

In Montpelier, decriminalization was once considered one of the key issues of the legislative session, but it has recently taken a back seat.

Right now, it’s a crime to possess marijuana. But under the bill before the House Judiciary Committee, someone would only get a ticket and a $100 fine for possessing two ounces or less. Rep. Chris Pearson, P-Burlington, is one of the lead sponsors of the bill, and he wants to be clear about what the legislation wouldn’t do.

"This bill keeps marijuana illegal," Pearson told the panel on Thursday. "The legalization bill is for another day."

Pearson argued that decriminalization would free up police to tackle more serious crimes by making possession a civil offense. "If you’re caught possessing a small amount of marijuana, it doesn’t make a lot of sense for you to have a criminal record that dogs you throughout your professional career if you’re trying to get a professional license, housing assistance, student aid," he explained. "There’s real ramification for that."

It appeared that the House Judiciary Committee was searching for a reason not to support the decriminalization of small amounts of pot. Some committee members did argue that two ounces was too much, however.

After the hearing, Rep. Andy Donaghy, R- Poultney, said a federal policy would be a better option than a state law. He also suggested the measure before the Committee would have unintended consequences.

"Two ounces can make up to 240 cigarettes – or joints – so that’s a hell of a lot of pot," said Donaghy, a former chief of detectives on Long Island. "I’m afraid that it’s going to send the wrong message to young people; that it’s going to make marijuana more available to them."

But decriminalization has supporters, including the Shumlin Administration.

"Just so everybody understands, this is contraband," said Public Safety Commissioner Keith Flynn, showing two bags full of pot to lawmakers during Thursday’s hearing. He wanted to display the difference between one and two ounces of marijuana.

"How many joints can you get out of a bag?" Flynn asked. "Well, it probably depends on who’s rolling it!"

"This is an important part of the discussion, because all this information needs to be part of the calculus," said Flynn, who thinks Vermont should only decriminalize the possession of one ounce of marijuana. But he believes decriminalization would allow state law enforcement to dedicate its scarce budget to Vermont’s severe opiate epidemic, instead. "This enables us to accomplish those tasks and at the same time look at our resources and how we’re allocating those resources, which is going to be the most effective way to keep Vermonters safe."

The bill gets another hearing next Wednesday. House Speaker Shap Smith, who opposes decriminalization, has said he won’t block it. So, supporters hope, the full House could still take it up before the end of the session. 

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