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Jim Kenyon: Shumlin Tries to Right a Wrong

Published: 12/31/2016 11:56:55 PM
Modified: 12/31/2016 11:57:06 PM

In June 2013, Gov. Peter Shumlin signed a bill decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana in Vermont. As a result, people caught with up to one ounce of pot can pay a fine, much like they do with a traffic ticket, and get on with their lives.

But that’s no consolation for the thousands of people who were convicted over the decades before the measure went into effect. They were still stuck with criminal records that followed them when they applied for college, jobs and the military.

Now, during his final days in office, Shumlin is trying to undo the damage to those victimized by the state’s ill-considered and failed war on drugs.

In early December, Shumlin announced that he would use his pardoning power to move the state toward a “saner” drug policy and criminal justice system.

“Decriminalization was a good first step in updating our outmoded drug laws,” Shumlin said. “It makes no sense that minor marijuana convictions should tarnish the lives of Vermonters indefinitely.”

The governor’s office received 460 applications before the Dec. 25 deadline and Shumlin will make his decisions early this week, his spokesman, Scott Coriell, told me last Thursday.

In looking through the names of pardon applicants, which is a matter of public record, I came across about two dozen Upper Valley residents. I contacted some of them, but no one was anxious to see their name appear in print. The fewer people who knew they had criminal records, the better.

I could see their point.

Despite what polls say — the Castleton Polling Institute last year found that 55 percent of Vermonters support legalization of marijuana — there’s still a stigma attached to the drug.

A misdemeanor conviction for possession is “still something that you have to hide,” said Matt Simon, the New England political director for the Marijuana Policy Project, a national organization working to end marijuana prohibition.

Recreational use is now legal in eight states. More than a dozen other states, including five in New England, have decriminalized pot. (The only New England state that hasn’t is the one that sells hard liquor by the case at its interstate rest stops.)

Some states have made it easier in recent years for people to get their criminal records expunged. But Simon said he was unaware of a governor who has gone to the “level of pardons” that Shumlin has pledged.

“He understood before many of his colleagues what a devastating effect our marijuana policies have had on people,” Simon said.

Last week, I had a lengthy talk with an Upper Valley business owner who applied for a pardon. The man, now 66, shared his story with me, but asked that his name not be used because it could hurt his business.

Here’s what he told me:

It was the summer of 1970. He was 20 years old and home from college.

About 40 young adults and some parents were at a camp in Reading for an informal gathering of local musicians. Acting on a tip from an informant, state police were under the impression that a major drug party was in progress.

Far from it.

But that didn’t stop a half-dozen or so troopers from descending upon the camp, with Frank Mahady, who was the Windsor County state’s attorney at the time, in tow.

The raid didn’t turn up much — less than an ounce of weed was discovered in a parked car’s glove compartment. After learning the identity of the driver, troopers asked about his passengers.

“We just answered truthfully,” the man told me. “That’s how they got us.”

He didn’t even know about the pot in the glove compartment. Still, police arrested all four men who had been in the car.

“My parents were devastated,” he said. “It was in all the newspapers. Back then, all drugs were looked at the same. It might as well have been heroin.”

Without consulting an attorney, he pleaded guilty and paid a fine. His conviction didn’t become a problem until last year — 45 years later.

The man and his wife do a fair amount of traveling. To make getting through major airports a bit easier, they applied for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s global entry card.

It allows pre-approved, low-risk travelers to pass through airport security more rapidly. To obtain a card, applicants undergo a “rigorous” criminal background check, according to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s website.

The man’s wife had no problem getting her card. He, on the other hand, was rejected. The marijuana conviction from 45 years ago had popped up.

I relayed his story to Simon, the New England political director for the Marijuana Policy Project.

A marijuana conviction “affects people in ways they often don’t anticipate,” he said. “They’re told to go to court, pay a fine and walk out. They don’t know what the ramifications are down the road.”

In the case of the man I spoke with, the ramifications turned out to be mostly an inconvenience. But considering how criminal records can affect a wide range of more important matters — from federal benefits to job opportunities — I can imagine far more alarming anecdotes.

Shumlin has had anything but an unblemished record in his six years as governor. He never came close to making Vermont the first state to implement a single-payer health care system. And his promise that every Vermonter would have access to broadband by the end of 2013? It still hasn’t happened.

But on the need to pardon pot offenders, he got it right. Allowing Vermonters to continue to pay a price for behavior most people now regard as harmless would be almost criminal.

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