Vt. Lawmakers Weigh Pot Decriminalization

Montpelier — Vermont lawmakers appeared on their way yesterday to legislation to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana, dropping the amount that would bring only a civil fine from two ounces to one and saying criminal charges would still apply to possession of any number of plants.

That word from House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bill Lippert came as his committee heard from top law enforcement officials including Attorney General William Sorrell and Public Safety Commissioner Keith Flynn that they support removing criminal penalties for possession of small amounts of pot.

Vermont currently makes it a misdemeanor to possess up to two ounces of the drug, with a felony charge for amounts larger than that or for growing it. Exceptions are made for medical marijuana users.

Under the bill as drafted, those caught with up to two ounces of marijuana, up to two mature plants and seven immature plants would face a penalty similar to a traffic ticket and pay a $100 fine. A Senate version, with which the House committee appeared to be moving into sync, would decriminalize up to one ounce, and would not change the current criminal law banning plants.

Vermont would become the 16th state to pass some form of marijuana decriminalization, according to Matt Simon, a lobbyist for the Marijuana Policy Project. Colorado and Washington state voters passed referenda in November to legalize marijuana, though it remains illegal under federal law.

Committee members and witnesses agreed that the law isn’t likely to have a big impact, noting that people rarely face criminal prosecution for possessing small amounts of marijuana now.

Flynn endorsed the one-ounce possession limit and was among those urging against decriminalizing possession of plants.

“A mature plant (grown) by somebody that knows what they’re doing can result in anywhere from three-quarters of a pound to a pound,” he said. “It’s a plant. Plants grow.”

Sorrell urged that a small number of plants be included in the amounts decriminalized. By continuing with growing small amounts as a criminal offense, “you are as a matter of public policy pushing people to deal with drug dealers,” he said in an interview after the hearing.

He also suggested that lawmakers decriminalize an amount slightly larger than an ounce, to account for “the vagaries of somebody’s scale,” or a dealer being slightly generous when weighing the amount sold.

For people younger than 21, the House bill would set up penalties similar to what they face now for possession of alcohol. They could face a $300 fine, or enter a court diversion program in which they would receive information about the dangers of substance abuse.

Not everyone was keen on the idea of decriminalizing marijuana. Essex County Sheriff Trevor Colby argued it would send the wrong message to young people.

He pointed to state Health Department data indicating Vermont has the highest percentage in the country of 18-to-25 year olds who say they’ve used marijuana in the past 30 days.

“How can this bill tell those kids that what they’re doing is OK?” Colby asked. “That’s what this bill essentially does.”