Lawmakers hear testimony on pot decriminalization

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(Host) The Vermont legislature is considering a bill to decriminalize the possession and sale of small amounts of marijuana.

The first public testimony on the bill came Wednesday night at the Statehouse in a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

VPR’s Patti Daniels was at the Statehouse.

(Daniels) Under the bill, possession and sale of four ounces of marijuana would be considered a civil violation instead of a criminal offense.

Violators could pay fines up to $1,000.

About 30 people brought their opinions on the proposal to the microphone. The hearing brought out more speakers who testified in favor of the bill than those who spoke against it.

Retired physician Kathleen Daye told the panel that prohibiting marijuana doesn’t reduce its use:

(Daye) "We know however what does work to reduce drug use: the public health approach, like we’re using with tobacco. Tobacco use is going down while it’s still legal, and we’re using a public health approach."

(Daniels) Speakers on both sides offered conflicting opinions about key issues. Some said marijuana is a gateway to harder drugs. Some said decriminalization would send the wrong message to kids. Others questioned the impact of marijuana crimes on courts and the corrections system.

Washington County State’s Attorney Tom Kelly spoke against the measure:

(Kelly) "Let me suggest that prosecutors have control of their resources. And I can tell you that in my office we do not devote inordinate time to marijuana cases, we are not overwhelmed by those cases and I don’t know if there’s a county that is."

(Daniels) Lawyer Anthony Iarrapino testified that he was arrested for possession in college. The charge dogged him as he went on to law school and applied for the Vermont bar:

(Iarrapino) "In law school we learn about the two categories of bad acts in our society. Acts that are malum in se bad in and of themselves – they’re inherently harmful to the society and to others. Then there are things that are classified as malum se prohibitum – things that are illegal simply because we say they are illegal. I think marijuana use and possession falls into that latter category."

(Daniels) The proposal to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana came up last fall and this month Governor Jim Douglas said he was open to a discussion.

Meanwhile, the Senate Judiciary Committee is considering a separate bill that would increase penalties for heroin and cocaine possession.

For VPR News, I’m Patti Daniels in Montpelier.


AP Photo/Toby Talbot: Sen. Jeanette White listens to testimony.

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