Senate Judiciary Committee votes to reduce marijuana penalties

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(Host) The Senate Judiciary committee has voted to reduce penalties for the possession of small amounts of marijuana.

But the panel rejected an effort to decriminalize the offense.

VPRs Bob Kinzel reports.


When the committee first considered this issue several weeks ago, there were several members who were sympathetic to the decriminalization argument as way to get these cases out of the criminal justice system.

But their viewpoint changed after members of the state’s law enforcement community testified that marijuana cases aren’t clogging the state’s judicial system because most of these cases are being sent to the diversion program.

This bill gives first time offenders who are caught with an ounce or less of marijuana two options. They can pay a $500 fine and have a permanent criminal record or they can enter the diversion program and have their record erased when they successfully complete the program.

Committee chairman Dick Sears supports the bill because he thinks the decriminalization plan has some negative features.

For instance, under that approach, a person would get a civil ticket for possessing a small amount of marijuana – it would be like getting a traffic ticket. But Sears says the person would still have a permanent criminal record and he says that could cause serious problems for the individual in the future:

(Sears) "No matter what we say it is it’s still a record for housing, jobs and other things that could disqualify somebody education you name it this way if they go through the diversion program successfully complete it…they will have no record, the case is dismissed."

(Kinzel) Windsor county senator Alice Nitka voted against the bill because she thinks it sends a message to young people that smoking marijuana isn’t so bad:

(Nitka) "I think we’re going in the wrong direction we had almost 300 children here 2 weeks ago Vermont kids against tobacco marching around the Statehouse with all these projects they’ve been doing and at the same time we’re saying we’re almost saying hey it’s ok to be smoking marijuana.

(Kinzel) Sears disagrees with that assessment and says the bill is a way to treat this crime in a uniform way throughout the state.

(Sears) "Let’s make the law reflect what’s actual practice but also make sure it’s treated fairly in all 14 counties…and so I don’t think we’re sending any message to kids that marijuana is legal or is ok and alcohol is not or all of that debate this is really about what the law should look like."

(Kinzel) The full Senate is now scheduled to debate this legislation in the middle of next week.

For VPR News I’m Bob Kinzel in Montpelier.

(Host) The Senate Judiciary Committee vote to reduce marijuana penalties was four to one.


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