State’s pot law could impact court diversion programsBy Brent Curtis
STAFF WRITER | July 14,2013Vermont’s court diversion programs are watching for the impact of a new law decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana.
Put into effect at the start of this month, the new law makes possessing an ounce or less of marijuana or up to five grams of hashish a civil rather than criminal offense.
But the new law also includes big incentives for violators under age 21 to enroll in the state’s court diversion programs — a process usually used to divert those accused of minor crimes into a system that addresses offenses through community restoration efforts and other redemptive activities in exchange for purging the criminal charge.
Vermont court diversion programs may find themselves busier due to the change.
“We don’t know what to expect at this point,” said Willa Farrell, director of the Vermont Association of Court Diversion Programs in Montpelier.
“It could be a lateral move, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if we see an increase.”
Farrell delivered that same message to directors of the 14 county diversion programs who gathered July 10 for an annual meeting in Randolph.
Marijuana possession cases already account for a large part of the diversion caseload in the state, Farrell said, estimating that as much as 25 percent of all cases referred to diversion by local prosecutors involved small amounts of marijuana.
Prosecutors won’t refer those cases to diversion any more thanks to the new marijuana law, but incentives in that legislation could have young people seeking the program out, Farrell said.
The penalties outlined in the law are steeper for offenders under age 21 — starting at $300 and a 90-day license suspension for first offenders and doubling to $600 and a 180-day license suspension thereafter.
But those penalties can be avoided if offenders complete court diversion and a new youth substance-abuse safety program being created to educate and screen participants to determine their levels of drug use.
Since roughly half of the marijuana cases referred to diversion in the past featured offenders under 21, Farrell said she wouldn’t be surprised to see a significant increase in the caseload due to the incentive.
How law enforcement officers respond to the new law also remains to be seen, she said.
While possession of small amounts of marijuana is no longer a criminal act, the drug itself is still illegal to possess and it can be seized by police who can use it to justify further searches.
“That’s the big unknown, how many tickets police will write,” Farrell said. “Some of the law enforcement officers I’ve spoken to have indicated that it’s easier and faster to write a civil ticket, and the burden of proof is lower, so they expect to see more.”
But Brandon Police Chief Christopher Brickell, whose term as president of the Vermont Association of Chiefs of Police ended at the start of June, said he’s skeptical of that prediction.
“It won’t change in theory the way law enforcement is doing their jobs,” he said of the new law. “It’s simpler, yes, to write a civil ticket but you’re still going to have paperwork to do.”
And unlike some other illegal drugs like cocaine and heroin, marijuana generally isn’t the target of investigators.
“It’s always been something that comes along in other cases,” Brickell said. “We’re not out looking for it in small quantities.”
On the other hand, Springfield Police Chief Douglas Johnston, who took over as president of the chief’s association, said it was entirely possible that officers who in the past may have seized small amounts of marijuana without writing a criminal charge might now be more inclined to write a civil ticket.
“It’s got the potential for more activity,” he said. “It could be a good thing. It might be able to keep kids from getting into harder substances.”
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