Senate gives approval to reduced penalties for marijuana possession

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(Host) By a vote of 22 to 7, the Senate has given its preliminary approval to legislation that reduces penalties for the possession of small amounts of marijuana.

However, the legislation doesn’t decriminalize the use of marijuana.

VPRs Bob Kinzel reports:

(Kinzel) Backers of the legislation said the bill reflects what’s common practice in most counties in the state, but they argued it’s important to adopt a uniform statewide policy.

Currently, most people who are arrested for the first time possession of a small amount of marijuana are sent to the diversion program and individuals who successfully complete diversion have their record expunged from the court system.

This bill gives anyone arrested with an ounce or less of marijuana two options.

They can pay a $500 fine and have a criminal record or they can enter diversion.

Judiciary committee chairman Dick Sears says his panel rejected the decriminalization approach for several reasons:

(Sears) "It’s still illegal no matter what we do according to the federal government and even by decriminalizing and giving something akin to a speeding ticket somebody would still have that on their record so what we chose to do was distinguish between one ounce or less as a small amount."

Chittenden senator Hinda Miller was a sponsor of the original decriminalization bill. She said she now supported this different approach:

(Miller) "It was to begin to discuss laws that are not getting the results that we want for our children. As a mother of two children I look around and I see a responsibility for a re-evaluation of how we deal with a drug problem that is getting worse and worse."

(Kinzel) But Rutland senator Hull Maynard opposed the bill because he believes the legislation sends the wrong message to areas of the state that are experiencing an increase in drug related crime:

(Maynard) "This is the wrong time to take a tiny step in what I feel is the wrong direction I feel that we would be better off not passing anything on this subject now get down to business and try to clear up a drug problem that may be worse in Rutland than other places and maybe not.

The measure will come for final approval in the Senate on Thursday.

For VPR News I’m Bob Kinzel in Montpelier.

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