Pot controversy reignites debate over decriminalization

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(Host) Controversy about how a marijuana possession case was handled in Windsor County is reigniting another debate – whether possession should be decriminalized.

As VPR’s Ross Sneyd reports, a state senator says she wants the debate to shift to the Statehouse this winter.

(Sneyd) Windsor County State’s Attorney Robert Sand is under fire for recommending that a local attorney go through the diversion program for possessing two-and-a-half pounds of marijuana.

State Senator Jeanette White sees that case as a recent example of something she’s been working on for more than a year.

She says marijuana cases are taking too much time and resources from the criminal justice system.

So she wants to make possession a civil offense, punishable by a fine, not criminal conduct. She says that’s decriminalization, not legalization.

White is anticipating criticism for her bill – and rejects it.

(White) “People will tell you it’s a slippery slope to legalizing and then it’s a slippery slope to legalizing all the other drugs. Whether or not you agree they should be done, the job of the Legislature, it seems to me, is to know when to halt that slippery slope.”

(Sneyd) Bob Bick is director of the largest community substance abuse program in the state, at the Howard Center in Burlington.

He says cases like the one in Windsor, where the attorney could have faced a felony charge, demonstrate that possession already has essentially been decriminalized.

He says he worries that formal decriminalization would create more substance abuse problems.

(Bick) “If we create more access, we will create more individuals who will try. Unfortunately, we don’t know what percent of those individuals, and who specifically, will then get into trouble as a result of that use.”

(Sneyd) Despite those kinds of concerns, White has a powerful ally for her bill.

Senate President Peter Shumlin says he supports the proposal and will make sure it gets a hearing.

(Shumlin) “We are spending extraordinary resources running people through the courts who use small amounts of marijuana. It takes up police resources, law-enforcement resources, judicial resources that are very scarce right now, prosecutor resources. It’s nuts and it really has to be looked at.”

(Sneyd) Shumlin says the Senate also will draft a bill that would crack down on drug traffickers.

For VPR News, I’m Ross Sneyd.

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