The House Judiciary Committee has been taking testimony for weeks and the bill is likely to pass Tuesday afternoon.
Judiciary chairman Bill Lippert, D-Hinesburg, predicts that his committee will recommend that the House adopt a version of the bill. "I think there’s a high level of expectation for the Legislature to look at carefully – and probably to move forward to the governor’s office – a bill that decriminalizes possession of small amounts of marijuana," Lippert said in an interview earlier this month.
Opponents have raised concerns about the message the bill might send to young people, but Lippert and other members of the Judiciary Committee seem to think that they have addressed those fears. Lippert says the original bill would have permitted the possession of two ounces of marijuana. But, in a straw poll last week, that amount was cut in half.
"I think it was clear that the amounts that were put into this bill, while they mirror the therapeutic marijuana bill, I don’t think many people expected those amounts to survive the scrutiny of our deliberations," Lippert said.
The measure has divided lawmakers and local law enforcement. Figures from the Vermont Center for Justice Research show about 5,700 people were charged with possession of marijuana in the past five years; more than half of them were convicted.
Until last year, House Speaker Shap Smith was hesitant to have the Legislature even take up decriminalization. The Shumlin administration, however, supports the bill. And Attorney General Bill Sorrell wants the state to take another step – to pass a measure that would decriminalize growing small marijuana plants.
"I see the concern about a commercial grow operation trying to say it’s all for personal consumption," Sorrell said. "But I don’t think you want to foster somebody having to buy marijuana behind a bar in downtown Burlington or Montpelier or wherever."
In Winooski, Police Chief Steve McQueen wants the Legislature to reconsider the message the bill might send to citizens.
"This is not legalization," McQueen argued, sitting in his cruiser on a recent sunny afternoon. "It is still always going to be illegal both federally and under state law to possess marijuana."
The chief says lawmakers shouldn’t change the penalty for possession from a criminal offense to a civil one. "It’s a drug that comes from a variety of different places – the drug cartels, whether they’re out of Mexico or working the hydroponics out of Canada," he said. "It’s a criminal enterprise that brings the drug here."
McQueen and other chiefs in Vermont are warning lawmakers to think carefully before they vote to assign civil penalties to something many of them still believe is dangerous.