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Vermont Lawmakers Decriminalize Small Amounts of Pot, Hashish

White River Junction — The Vermont Legislature gave final approval yesterday to a bill that would decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana and hashish, clearing the way for the bill to be signed into law by a supportive governor.

The legislation would do away with criminal penalties for possession of up to an ounce of marijuana and five grams of concentrated hashish derived from cannabis for people at least 21 years-old. Instead, those of legal age who are charged with possession within those amounts will face civil fines akin to a speeding ticket.

“I applaud the Legislature’s action to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana,” Gov. Peter Shumlin, a Democrat, said yesterday in a statement. “Vermonters support sensible drug policies. This legislation allows our courts and law enforcement to focus their limited resources more effectively to fight highly addictive opiates such as heroin and prescription drugs that are tearing apart families and communities.”

Senate Minority Leader Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, whose district includes several Orange County towns, described the vote as “relatively quiet, surprisingly so.”

He said that the recent passage of legislation legalizing recreational marijuana in the states of Colorado and Washington likely had more influence on Vermont politicians than similar decriminalization laws in neighboring states.

“Folks were starting to realize that we are a ways behind the times as opposed to a ways ahead of the times, and there was a lot less angst about what we were looking at here,” Benning said.

On the streets of downtown White River Junction yesterday, Vermonters were largely supportive of the measure, though some expressed caution.

Karen Therrien, a 44-year-old Springfield, Vt., resident, said that marijuana ought to be regulated in a manner similar to alcohol, but she also worried that the law could send the wrong message to children who might think it’s now OK for them to use the recreational drug.

“I have an 18-year-old son and a 14-year-old daughter, so there should be (a minimum age requirement) with it,” Therrien said. “You need to be able to handle that in an adult fashion, if that’s what you’re going to do.”

And while Therrien said that marijuana and alcohol would ideally be regulated in a similar manner, she also said that the legal drinking age of 21-years-old is too high. For Therrien, it would make more sense to have uniform laws for the treatment of alcohol, marijuana, and enlistment in the military, whether the age threshold is determined at 18 or 21 years-old.

“You’re either an adult at 21 or you’re an adult at 18,” she said. “If we send our 18-year-olds overseas, then they should be able to buy a beer in their own town.”

In the Lampscapes shop downtown, which offers handcrafted lamp shades, Lu Johnson took a moment from working on his craft to weigh in on the legislative development.

“I don’t think it should be an offense at all,” said Johnson, a 58-year-old Thetford native. “No fine, nothing.”

Johnson said that the move to decriminalize “only makes common sense,” and figured that it would open up the door for more debate on legalization, which would allow the state to net revenue from taxing the sale of marijuana. But, he added, “It might be a bumpy ride yet.”

Johnson spoke about the marijuana possession law through the prism of a social issue. He said that, like same-sex marriage, recreational cannabis had to “sort itself out in the population” as more people talk openly about it and educate themselves on the pros and cons.

He also referenced the so-called “war on drugs,” which dates back to the Ronald Reagan era, estimating that it took decades for the public to determine that the war on drugs may not be winnable.

“We’ve wasted so many funds for so many years in this war on drugs,” he said. “All the mandatory sentencing, what a waste.”

Alex Bullett, a 25-year-old who is originally from Maine but has been living in White River Junction for more than a year, described the law as a “step in the right direction toward legalization,” which he said would be “really good for everybody” as a revenue generator for the state.

“I’d much prefer (legalization to decriminalization),” he said. “I think that it’s a little pointless, you’re missing out on opportunities to make money for the state.”

Bullett too pointed to Colorado and Washington’s recent legalization of the recreational drug, estimating that the federal government’s prohibition on marijuana would soon be coming to an end.

“Within the decade, (the federal government) is going to have to give in on their sort of obscene war on drugs,” he said. “It hurts us more than it helps us.”

The legislation approved yesterday would align Vermont with other nearby states that have decriminalized marijuana possession, including Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New York and Rhode Island. It leaves New Hampshire as the last hold-out in New England when it comes to stricter marijuana possession laws.

The New Hampshire Senate earlier this month rejected a proposal that cleared the House and would have removed criminal penalties for up to a quarter-ounce of marijuana.

Ben Conarck can be reached at bconarck@vnews.com or 603-727-3213. Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.