Supporters of decriminalizing – or even legalizing – the possession of small amounts of marijuana have cleared a major hurdle. The Vermont House voted 98-to-44 on Friday to make it a civil offense – instead of a crime – to possess one ounce or less of pot.
Backers of the bill, again and again, made one thing clear: it would not legalize marijuana.
"I think there are a few of us in the Legislature who support taxing and regulating marijuana, but it’s clearly not a consensus," said Rep. Chris Pearson, P-Burlington.
Pearson is a lead sponsor of the decriminalization bill, and he says where House lawmakers did find tri-partisan consensus in recent weeks was around making it a civil offense to possess one ounce or less of the drug.
"The collateral consequences of a misdemeanor charge are too much and out of whack with the offense of possessing a small amount of marijuana," Pearson said shortly before Friday’s vote.
Under the bill, no one could knowingly possess more than an ounce of pot or cultivate marijuana plants. And if a person violates that law, they’d get a ticket similar to a speeding ticket. Then, they could receive a $300 civil fine for a first or second offense and a 90-day suspension of their license. For the first time in Vermont, the bill would also prohibit smoking pot while driving by imposing a fine of up to $500.
On the House floor on Friday, Rep. Tom Koch, R-Barre Town, told his colleagues that he’d originally opposed the bill, but in the end he reversed his vote because of that driving provision.
"If you had told me a month ago that I’d be voting for this bill or particularly helping to report it, I would have looked you in the eye and told you that you’re out of your mind," said Koch, who represents a broader shift in the House and the state.
Speaker Shap Smith once blocked the issue from a floor debate. But when it did finally go to a vote, it attracted support from Republicans, Democrats and Progressives. Still, Koch and other Republicans expressed concern that the bill would send a horrible message to young people.
"We need to emphasize that this bill does not legalize marijuana," Koch said. "This bill deals with the penalties for possession of marijuana."
Rep. Kurt Wright, R-Burlington, proposed an amendment that would require marijuana decriminalization expires after three years, but that amendment failed, 102-38.
The House vote comes as the topic of decriminalization is moving swiftly through the Statehouse, and it comes in a state whose local law enforcement is split on how much should be decriminalized. While the House settled on one ounce, Brandon Police Chief Christopher Brickell, the head of the Vermont Police Chiefs Association, says that is too much.
"There are issues that we will face that will be complicated for us to deal with because we may make an arrest that ends up later being a civil violation or just the reverse," Brickell told VPR’s Vermont Edition.
Brickell says making possession of marijuana a civil violation would create a backlog in the courts because the state already has too many people who don’t pay tickets.
But sponsors of the bill say it would free up police to tackle more serious crimes, including Vermont’s opiate epidemic. The bill is expected to come up for a final vote in the House next week before moving to the Senate.
Vermont Edition: Lawmakers Debate Pot Decriminalization