Cloudy
64°
Cloudy
Hi 84° | Lo 60°

Vt. Panel Advances Pot Decriminalization

Montpelier — The Vermont House Judiciary Committee yesterday approved legislation that would remove criminal penalties for possession of up to an ounce of marijuana and replace them with a civil violation and a fine of up to $300.

The committee voted 9-2 to approve the measure, which also contains provisions designed to eliminate future collateral consequences like ineligibility for certain jobs or government benefits for those convicted of possessing up to two ounces of the illicit substance.

The bill, which also includes a new offense of driving while smoking marijuana, now moves to the full House for debate, which is expected tomorrow. The Senate is working on similar legislation, and Gov. Peter Shumlin has said he supports decriminalization of possession of small amounts of marijuana.

“We’re not legalizing marijuana,” Rep. William Lippert, D-Hinesburg and the committee’s chairman, said shortly after the vote. Rather, he said the purpose of the legislation was twofold: bring consistency to law enforcement across the state and eliminate non-criminal consequences for someone busted with only a small amount of marijuana.

Some police officers who testified before the committee said when they catch someone with a small amount they’ll routinely destroy it while others said they would issue a citation, requiring the person to appear in court.

Meanwhile, Lippert said, someone caught with a small amount of marijuana might find years later they’re unable to get certain jobs or benefits because of a past drug conviction.

Under the bill, anyone caught with up to an ounce of marijuana would pay less a “waiver penalty” of less than $300 — the exact amount will be set by a panel of judges — and would only face the full fine if they challenged the ticket and lost, Lippert said.

Anyone caught with between one and two ounces or up to four marijuana plants would be eligible for a court diversion program designed to ensure that no criminal charge stayed on his or her permanent record, unless a prosecutor petitioned a court to say diversion would not serve justice and the person should face a misdemeanor criminal charge.

Some committee members expressed surprise that Vermont until now had not had a law forbidding smoking marijuana while driving, but Lippert noted that possessing and smoking it was illegal in and of itself. The bill would add marijuana to a section of the law that says someone caught drinking alcohol while driving can face a fine up to $500.