Vermont passes bill to decriminalize up to ounce of pot possession
By PETER HIRSCHFELD
Vermont Press Bureau | May 14,2013
MONTPELIER — More than a decade after lawmakers here began pushing for the reform of cannabis laws, the Vermont Legislature has given final approval to a bill that will decriminalize possession of up to an ounce of marijuana.
The House on Monday cast the final vote for a decriminalization bill that now heads to the desk of Gov. Peter Shumlin. The second-term Democrat championed the measure in both his election campaigns, and lauded the Legislature’s work this year.
“I applaud the Legislature’s action to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana. Vermonters support sensible drug policies,” Shumlin said in a written statement.
While Vermonters aren’t customarily sentenced to long jail terms for small-time marijuana offenses, the crime does sometimes result in incarceration.
According to statistics provided by the Vermont Center for Justice Research, of the 5,716 people convicted of misdemeanor marijuana possession between 2008 and 2012, 472 were sentenced to jail time. Nearly 400 landed on probation, and 1,248 had to pay a fine. The data do not distinguish between cases that were standalone offenses and those that were part of a package of charges.
Shumlin said the reforms will allow “our courts and law enforcement to focus their limited resources more effectively to fight highly addictive opiates such as heroin and prescription drugs that are tearing apart families and communities.”
First-time misdemeanor possession offenses currently carry a maximum sentence of six months in jail. The new law would replace criminal sanctions with a $300 fine; the legislation also decriminalizes possession of up to five grams of hashish.
Decriminalization proponents said the effects of misdemeanor possession conviction can have severe consequences even in instances when the punishment is only a small fine. Younger offenders have found themselves unable to qualify for federal student loans and other government benefits as a result of their criminal record.
Sen. David Zuckerman, a Chittenden County Progressive who first introduced decriminalization legislation as a House representative several years ago, said the passage of the new law is a case of politicians finally catching up with the will of their constituents.
“I think after the ‘just say no’ era of Ronald Reagan, politicians were afraid to talk about drugs in a sane, rational way,” Zuckerman said Monday.
He said the passage of medical marijuana laws in 2004 allowed many elected officials here to feel more comfortable considering decriminalization.
“When they say there wasn’t any negative reaction to that vote,” Zuckerman said, “they opened up to the possibility of talking about marijuana reform in a rational way.”