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Jim Kenyon: Reefer Madness in Vermont, New Hampshire Approaches to Pot

When it comes to philosophies about taxation, school funding, and even motorcycle helmets, Vermont and New Hampshire tell a Tale of Two States. And it appears there will soon be a new addition to the list: Pot.

Both states are debating whether it’s time to stop treating marijuana smokers (and pot-brownie eaters, too) as criminals. Any guesses on which state is most likely to adopt a less punitive stance?

Vermont lawmakers appear ready to pass legislation this spring that would no longer make it a crime to possess small amounts of weed. Gov. Peter Shumlin, a Democrat, supports the decriminalization bill, which would allow offenders to pay a fine rather than go through the criminal justice system — like a speeding ticket.

In New Hampshire, the House voted 214-115 earlier this month to remove possession of up to a quarter ounce of marijuana from the state’s list of misdemeanor crimes. But the vote gave little cause to celebrate to anyone who thinks that prosecuting pot users is a waste of taxpayer dollars.

The bill is almost certain to go up in smoke. Gov. Maggie Hassan, a Democrat, opposes decriminalization and the Senate has rejected previous House attempts.

The differing viewpoints on how to treat marijuana can be found outside the state capitals as well. I recently attended a criminal justice forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters of the Upper Valley and the Norwich Women’s Club.

During the question-and-answer period, the featured speakers, Grafton County Attorney Lara Saffo and Windsor County State’s Attorney Bobby Sand, were asked about marijuana.

“I am a big fan of (substance abuse) treatment. I am absolutely not a fan of legalization,” responded Saffo, who later told me that she also opposes decriminalization. “I’m extremely worried about the message that we’re sending to young people.”

Saffo, Grafton County’s top law enforcement official, referred me to a 2010 report issued by the National Association of Drug Court Professionals that cites several nationwide epidemiological studies. According to the studies, one out of every 10 to 12 people who use marijuana will become hooked. The report argues that “marijuana is an intoxicating and addictive drug that poses serious medical risks akin to those of nicotine and alcohol.” Both of which the state of New Hampshire is only too happy to peddle.

And while we’re on the subject of vices, gambling can be addictive, too. But that’s not stopping the governor from pushing for the state to open its doors to a casino.

For Sand, the forum at the Norwich Library was one of his final public appearances in the elected position that he has held for 15 years. (His new job is designing statewide alternative sentencing programs for repeat drunken driving offenders.)

In 2007, Sand began to advocate for major changes in the war on drugs. It didn’t win him any popularity contests with cops and prosecutors who believed it was further evidence that Windsor County’s top law enforcement official was soft on crime. For one more night, at least, Sand continued to speak out. “I don’t share Lara’s view,” he told the audience of about 60 people. “We’ve had 40 years of an approach that didn’t work.”

If the Vermont Legislature votes as expected, marijuana still won’t be legal, but it would no longer be a criminal offense punishable by up to six months in jail. The proposal calls for a maximum fine of $100 for people caught with two ounces or less. Anyone under 21 would also have to take a drug awareness class and perform community service.

“When you think about the amount of court time it uses, it’s time to move it out of that arena and allow the courts to deal with things that are really dangerous,” said state Rep. Linda Waite-Simpson, an Essex Democrat, who is a chief sponsor of the bill.

On its Facebook page, Hartford cops post news releases about arrests made around town. (In 2012, they made 47 busts for possession of marijuana.) During a two-week stretch earlier this month, the Facebook page reported three arrests for possession. None of the people were charged with any other crimes.

What do Hartford cops think about the change that seems likely to come out of Montpelier this spring? “We understand that it’s a political thing,” said Deputy Chief Brad Vail. “We have to do what the Legislature tells us, but we don’t have to like it.”

In New Hampshire, possession of marijuana can be punished by up to a year in jail. Saffo argues that people aren’t spending time behind bars just for getting caught with a couple of joints.

But what about the taxpayer money and time that cops spend on weeding out weed?

Last year, 127 individuals were arrested in Lebanon for marijuana possession. That’s one person every three days. In neighboring Enfield, cops were busy, too. Their 63 arrests for possession amounted to more than a collar a week.

This tells me that Saffo and other decriminalization opponents are right about one thing. Marijuana is a gateway drug. It’s a gateway that police sometimes use as an excuse to search the cars and belongings of law-abiding citizens. And a gateway to a person being saddled with a criminal record.

“A criminal offense and a criminal record can do much more harm than a small amount of marijuana,” state Rep. Joel Winters, D-Nashua, told The Associated Press.

More than a dozen states have already decriminalized or legalized marijuana. If the bill becomes law in Vermont, New Hampshire would be the only New England state not to have decriminalized.

I guess that’s why it’s called the Granite State.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at Jim.Kenyon@valley.net.