Jeb Wallace-Brodeur / Staff Photo
Public Safety Commissioner Keith Flynn testifies before the House Judiciary Committee on proposed legislation to decriminalize posession of small amounts of marijuana.
MONTPELIER — The more than decade-long push for marijuana reform in Vermont looks poised to culminate this year with the passage of legislation that would decriminalize possession of small amounts of the drug.
But while passage of a bill seems increasingly likely, lawmakers are still debating its details. And on Wednesday, Attorney General William Sorrell urged the House Judiciary Committee not only to eliminate criminal sanctions for possession of an ounce or less of cannabis, but to consider allowing Vermonters to grow “one or two” plants without fear of prosecution.
“If you take away the ability to grow your own, you’re pushing someone who wants to possess and use marijuana into the marketplace of having to deal with marijuana dealers,” Sorrell said. “And is that the behavior you essentially want to require and foster?”
The question looms large over a decriminalization debate that has split the law enforcement community. Advocates of the legislation, which, as currently written, would allow the cultivation of up to two mature plants and seven immature plants, say the consequences of criminal convictions are unnecessarily harsh.
While only a small fraction of people convicted of misdemeanor marijuana possession will ever see the inside of a jail cell, Chittenden County State’s Attorney TJ Donovan said the “collateral consequences” can be life-changing.
Criminal convictions, even for misdemeanor crimes committed at a young age, Donovan said, can ruin eligibility for everything from federal student loans to public assistance programs.
“When people can’t go to school, can’t get a job, can’t get housing … it adds to the corrections budget we’re all trying to reduce,” Donovan told lawmakers. “How do you ask someone to get employment or go to school when a conviction prevents that?”
Commissioner of Public Safety Keith Flynn provided another high-profile endorsement. The former Orleans County state’s attorney offered support for a bill that would replace criminal sanctions — current law calls for up to six months in jail and a $500 fire for first offenses — with a $100 fine.
Just because Vermonters aren’t frequently being sentenced to jail for small-time marijuana offenses, Flynn said, doesn’t mean they aren’t distracting law enforcement and prosecutors from more pressing public safety problems. Between making the arrest, writing the affidavit, filing the charges and negotiating a plea deal, Flynn said, “all of a sudden we’re spending a great deal of money on this offense.”
According to statistics provided by the Vermont Center for Justice Research, of the 5,716 people convicted of misdemeanor marijuana possession between 2008 and 2012, 472 were sentenced to incarceration. Nearly 400 landed on probation, and 1,248 had to pay a fine. The data do not distinguish between cases that were standalone offenses and those that were part of a package of charges.
“When we look at the resources being expended throughout this process, that certainly should cause us pause to ask, ‘Is this the most effective way to be dealing with this issue?’” Flynn said.
Steve McQueen, chief of the Winooski Police Department and president of the Vermont Association of Police Chiefs, said expenditure of police resources on smaller-time crimes like marijuana possession allows for the kinds of early interventions that can prevent more serious criminal activity.
McQueen said people charged with misdemeanor marijuana possession in his jurisdiction rarely are convicted, let alone sent to jail. But he said the “hammer” of prosecution gives his officers the leverage they need to get offenders, often younger ones, on the straight and narrow.
“They may not (otherwise) participate in any of the things we put forward to help them better understand the consequences of their behavior,” McQueen said.
Essex County Sheriff Trevor Colby, who spoke to lawmakers Wednesday in his role as president of the Vermont Sheriffs’ Association, said eliminating criminal sanctions for marijuana possession will send a clear message to Vermont’s youth that smoking pot is OK.
“You’re passing a bill that creates the perception that you’re legalizing marijuana,” Colby said.
In a state with the highest rates of marijuana use in the country among adults age 18 to 25, according to results from the latest Youth Risk Behavior Survey, Colby said the state can’t afford to relax oversight of the drug.
Rep. Chris Pearson, lead sponsor of the bill, said the high usage rates testify to the futility of Vermont’s current approach. The legislation, as drafted, would require anyone under the age of 21 who is cited for possession to undergo an intervention, similar to the one teenagers have to complete after being cited for possession of alcohol.
As for adults, Pearson said, recreational use of marijuana isn’t necessarily symptomatic of a drug problem.
“Not everyone who drinks a glass of wine at dinner should be treated as an alcoholic,” said Pearson, a Burlington Progressive. “And not everyone who smokes marijuana needs substance-abuse treatment.”
Rep. Bill Lippert, a Hinesburg Democrat and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, indicated Wednesday that the committee would likely drop from the bill the provision that would decriminalize cultivation of a small number of plants. But that was before Sorrell’s testimony on the topic, which Lippert said came as a surprise.
Flynn said he opposes the inclusion of plants. He said experienced growers can yield as much as a pound per plant, which would, upon harvest, put the person in violation not only of the decriminalization limits, but of the two-ounce threshold at which possession becomes a more serious crime.
“It would walk you into a felony,” Flynn said.
Sorrell, however, said that beyond preventing people from patronizing drug dealers, the grow-your-own provision could help with quality control.
“If you’re concerned about the higher and higher THC content of plants through genetic engineering and such, possibly the grow-your-owns would be a more benign, less potent strain, depending on what the person wanted,” Sorrell said.
Lippert said he isn’t under any illusions that marijuana isn’t a potentially harmful drug. It’s for that reason, he said, that he opposes another bill introduced this year that calls for marijuana legalization.
“If sufficiently marketed and promoted, I believe we could have widespread negative impacts,” he said.
But he also said the potential for harmful effects isn’t reason enough to scuttle decriminalization. Alcohol, he said, is responsible for far more societal damage and can be purchased by anyone over 21 at a convenience store.
“The legality of a particular substance is not always a measure of its potential harmful impact on our society,” Lippert said.
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