In marijuana decriminalization bill, it’s all about ounces, plants and where to draw the line

An officer shows House Judiciary Ziploc bags containing 1 ounce and 2 ounces of marijuana. Photo by Alicia Freese

An officer shows House Judiciary Committee members Ziploc bags containing one ounce and two ounces of marijuana. Photo by Alicia Freese

A House panel’s review of a much-anticipated marijuana decriminalization bill began with show and tell.

The House Judiciary Committee examined two Ziploc bags of marijuana on Thursday — one contained a single ounce, the other held two.

H.200 makes it a civil penalty, instead of a criminal offense, to possess “two ounces of marijuana, two mature plants, or seven immature plants.” This means people would no longer face jail time and a criminal record for a first-time offense. The penalties for people under the age of 21 would mirror those for underage possession of alcohol.

Rep. William Lippert, D-Hinesburg, chair of the Judiciary Committee, is confident the bill will pass out of committee, and he expects it to do so quickly — within two weeks. The bill was one of the pieces of legislation that was given an exemption from the crossover deadline, which otherwise would have prevented it from possible passage this year.

The point of the bill, according to the lead sponsor, Rep. Chris Pearson, P-Burlington, is to do away with the disproportionate collateral consequences people face after being arrested for minor marijuana possession.

Every year about 1,100 Vermonters are arrested for marijuana possession, which costs the state about $750,000 in judicial and law enforcement costs, according to a Joint Fiscal Office estimate.

Under current law, a first-time offense for possession of less than two ounces of marijuana is a misdemeanor, and convictions come with six months in prison and/or a $500 fine. Under H.200, the same offense would warrant a civil penalty — the equivalent of a traffic ticket — and a $100 fine.

“This uses up a lot of time and energy for our justice system,” Pearson said, adding that, H. 200 “could free law enforcement up to handle more serious crimes.”

The committee, Lippert said, will hone in on the bill’s finer details rather than debate the concept of decriminalization, which already has the backing of the majority of committee members.

“It’s an ongoing concern for the Judiciary Committee that Vermonters who are convicted of very low-level nonviolent crimes should not suffer inordinately throughout the entirety of their life because they have a criminal conviction on their records,” Lippert said.

One of the central questions the committee will grapple with is, one ounce or two? The bill on the table would decriminalize possession of up to two ounces of marijuana.

Public Safety Commissioner Keith Flynn supports the premise of the bill, but he said he would rather see the limit reduced to one ounce.

“Two ounces may not be consistent with some of our other laws,” Flynn said, “and it’s inconsistent with other states.”

Flynn brought in both bags of marijuana to show the committee that two ounces is a substantial amount. He also cautioned, “not all marijuana is created equally,” noting that marijuana with more potent concentrations of THC is becoming increasingly common.

Among the 15 states that have decriminalized marijuana, the median threshold for possession is one ounce. Ohio is the most lenient state — it allows three and a half ounces.

Pearson told the committee he thought two ounces was an appropriate threshold because current law differentiates between the penalties for possession below and above this amount.

Another point of contention will center upon marijuana plants, and whether or not cultivation should be decriminalized.

“That would be groundbreaking, but I think the logic is compelling,” Pearson told the committee. It doesn’t make sense, Pearson argued, to charge someone with a misdemeanor for possessing a plant when it is still “simply leaves and a stem” and has yet to produce any marijuana. H.200 mirrors the possession limit — for plants and product — for medical marijuana, which is already established in state law.

But Flynn said he has reservations about this part of the bill also. One mature plant, according to Flynn, produces between three quarters and one pound of marijuana. Should H.200 pass, the same criminal penalties for possessing over two ounces would stay in place.

By decriminalizing mature plants, Flynn argued, “we are essentially walking people right into a felony conviction.”

Lippert said he was surprised to see plants included in H.200, and it may mean that the Agriculture Committee will need to weigh in on the matter.

Follow Alicia on Twitter @aefreese

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Comments

  1. Jim Barrett :

    While the taxpayers are spending millions on smoking cessation, the geniuses in Montpelier are trying to make sure everyone has an opportunity to smoke dope!

    • Considering Marijuana is safer than what the government currently allows, it is senseless to Prohibit it at all. At the very least, it should be treated exactly as we do
      alcohol! The model, including prohibition repeal is on place!
      BTW, marijuana does not need to be smoked to be ingested.
      Marijuana is less addictive and less harmful than Caffeine, let alone Alcohol and Tobacco; (3 Scientific Studies)
      BTW, Dr Henningfield is a former NIDA Staffer;.
      Addictiveness of Marijuana – ProCon.org.
      http://www.procon.org/view.background-resource.php?resourceID=1492

  2. Jason Wells :

    One thing I see here that is missing is that there is no mention of stopping enforcement. VT spends millions using helicopters, planes, stakeouts, wiretaps and the like looking for plants and growers for any real financial impact that must be stopped as well. Whats the point of wasting all that money if its just gonna be a civil fine? Furthermore why have a fine at all if your gonna go with decrim just do it already.

  3. timothy price :

    Jim Barrett… funny comment you make. :-) Yes, “the pursuit of happiness” allows that is is okay to drink coffee, have a beer, a glass of wine.. and a joint. Tobacco is a cancer causing, addictive drug, much more powerful and damaging than marijuana, as anyone who is informed knows. Marijuana is the less of all the “evils” and in fact, is quite beneficial to some. So calling it “a right to smoke dope” mischaracterizes the issue completely… sort of a bigots way of speaking.

    • 40+ Years of Taxpayer funded, government administered Propaganda and Lies is difficult to overcome. If it weren’t for the Internet, the flow of information would still be one way and selective. They can’t spew lies without being called out for it, anymore.

  4. Timothy MacLam :

    Strange that penalties for possession of marijuana should be watered down given the zeal of the House to over regulate prescription opioids and over the counter cold remedies. I guess it is okay to treat people with chronic, disabling pain, who are given legal prescriptions for controlled medications of known strength and therapeutic action, as criminals, but the state will wink at an illegal substance, of varying strengths, which is usually SMOKED.

  5. Fred Woogmaster :

    My first experience ‘trying’ pot occurred while I was serving in the army, stationed in Alaska, in 1960. Since then I have used marijuana with people of all persuasions, including lawyers, physicians and at least one judge. Original state laws on marijuana derive from a federal classification that is not just misguided – but is scientifically flawed. Given the unfortunate history of the issue, legalization and control is the only rational response. Any reform short of that may be useful but still misses the point. No governmental entity should be given the authority to control what one grows in one’s own garden for one’s own use. Period!

  6. george agnew :

    to not decriminalize cultivation forces anyone who wants pot to purchase it illegally. if you can grow it yourself, you dont have to support the criminal side of the coin and it fails. pretty simple math

  7. Fred Woogmaster :

    Hemp, anyone? An amazingly strong natural fiber, used successfully in war time, illegal? Vermont could fund its entire “corrections” system with a modest hemp crop grown on state land. A larger crop could fund our entire social service system (there would be no need to ‘nickel and dime’ our most vulnerable and needy neighbors). Vermont leads? Selectively, for sure. Cannabis, a weed, has many positive uses. Several states have recognized that the “illegal” status of cannabis is foolhardy and that marijuana is demonstrably far less harmful to society than either alcohol or cigarettes. The Federal classification of marijuana is wrong and must be changed. Oxycontin, anyone? Or perhaps you prefer a a little Lorazepam. We do have a serious “drug” problem in this country and it may well be that history will reveal marijuana to be a solution rather than a problem. Things change. Slavery was real. The conversation has come a long way. Let’s keep it going.

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