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Jim Kenyon: Baggie of Pot Begs Question

  • Valley News columnist Jim Kenyon in West Lebanon, N.H., on September 15, 2016. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Geoff Hansen

Published: 6/21/2017 12:05:01 AM
Modified: 6/21/2017 12:34:45 AM

A single mother and her teenage daughter sat near the back of the Lebanon courtroom recently, waiting their turn to talk with the prosecutor. The girl, a Lebanon High School senior, was arrested in February, after police found a small amount of marijuana in her parked car.

She’d been hanging out with friends after school in a parking area off Mascoma Street Extension when a Lebanon police officer approached. The officer later wrote in his affidavit that he was “able to smell marijuana smoke in the air.”

The officer, who was eventually joined at the scene by another cop, asked to search two of the teenagers’ cars. When they refused (after calling their parents), their cars were impounded and police obtained search warrants.

Police kept the girl’s car for a couple of days. According to the police affidavit, the search turned up a small amount of marijuana in a plastic baggie under the passenger seat in the girl’s car.

Police determined that the weed belonged to her passenger. But it made no difference.

The girl was asked to come to the Lebanon police station, where she was fingerprinted, photographed and — are you ready for this? — locked in a holding cell until paying a $40 bail commission fee.

She was charged with the “transport” of marijuana in a motor vehicle, a misdemeanor. Her passenger was arrested for possession of marijuana.

I guess that’s what you call a two-for-one: one bag of pot; two kids get busted.

I happened to be in the courtroom on the morning that the girl and her mother were there. (I’m not using their names because I figure Lebanon police have put them through enough already.)

So why write about it? Not long after seeing the mother and daughter in court, I attended a community forum where Lebanon Police Chief Richard Mello shared his policing philosophy. A resident asked Mello about the effect the Legislature’s decision to decriminalize marijuana would have. “I expect the impact on the Lebanon Police Department will be zero,” he said.

Really?

Last year, Lebanon police made 152 marijuana busts — an average of roughly three a week — that accounted for 57 percent of the city’s drug arrests. At the community forum, Mello told residents that Lebanon police have operated for a while as though the law was already in effect.

I don’t buy it.

Under a bill the Legislature passed earlier this year, many marijuana cases would be handled much like speeding, where offenders are given a ticket. If they choose not to fight it in court, they can pay their fine by mail. The penalty for possessing up to three-quarters of an ounce would become a violation that carries a $100 fine.

Gov. Chris Sununu intends to sign the bill when it reaches his desk in the next couple of weeks, spokesman Ben Vihstadt said Monday. The law would go into effect 60 days later.

New Hampshire is hardly breaking new ground. More than 20 states, including the five other New England states, have decriminalized or legalized pot. Until now, New Hampshire police have fought off decriminalization attempts, arguing that marijuana is a gateway drug.

“They’ve been fighting this war on drugs for 40 years,” said Matt Simon, the New England political director for the Marijuana Policy Project. “It’s hard for them to accept that it’s been a failure, or even counterproductive.”

Mello told me that he’s not opposed to decriminalization, but is concerned that supporters will now try to get it legalized. That would be a mistake, he said, because of pot’s potential harmful effects on young people.

I’d argue that getting arrested for marijuana also carries harmful effects for those same young people when they apply for a job or college.

It can also be tough on families. Take the Lebanon High senior that I mentioned at the beginning of this column. She had to miss school to appear in court, while her mother had to take time off from work. Since they couldn’t afford an attorney, they were more or less at the mercy of the prosecutor.

At the time of her arrest, the girl was a month shy of her 18th birthday. Still, police were able to charge her as an adult because she was charged with “transporting” marijuana — not possession. Transporting falls under the state’s motor vehicle laws, which allow 16- and-17-year-olds to be treated as adults.

But under the decriminalization bill that Sununu is about to sign, the law against transporting small amounts of marijuana would be wiped off the books. That’s little consolation to the girl that Lebanon police put through the wringer in February.

But she was fortunate in one respect. Two years ago, Ben LeDuc, a young attorney from southern New Hampshire, became Lebanon’s prosecutor. LeDuc has brought an enlightened approach to the job.

Although current law allows LeDuc to seek a misdemeanor conviction in marijuana cases, it’s been his practice to reduce the charge for first-time offenders.

In this case, LeDuc allowed the girl to enter the city’s diversion program, which could help her avoid a criminal record. She just has to stay out of trouble for a year. (Unfortunately, she’ll still have an arrest record to deal with.)

On Monday, I talked with her by phone. She’s completed the six-hour diversion program and will soon head off to college in another state. Although the new law comes too late to help her, she’s glad for the change.

“People will have a lot less hassle and worry,” she said.

I hope it also means that Lebanon police will have a lot more time to fight real crime instead of going after teens hanging out after school.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.




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