Committee drills into details of marijuana decriminalization bill

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

An officer shows Ziploc bags containing one ounce and two ounces of marijuana during a House Judiciary Committee meeting last week. Photo by Alicia Freese

A bill to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana is spawning questions, from the legal to the agricultural.

The House Judiciary Committee plans to iron out the kinks rapidly — the committee chair, Rep. William Lippert, D-Hinesburg, hopes to vote on the bill, H.200, sometime next week.

The committee heard today from top state officials as well as law enforcement officers, state’s attorneys, and the court diversion director.

Law enforcement officers and some states attorneys rehashed longstanding philosophical objections — that decriminalization will encourage marijuana use and strip law enforcement of a tool. But the public safety commissioner, the defender general and the Chittenden County state’s attorney all support decriminalization, and most of the discussion in House Judiciary was spent on logistical details.

Supporters and opponents of decriminalization agree that H.200 would have little impact on freeing up law enforcement to pursue more serious crime or opening up bed space in the state’s prisons. As it is, people are rarely prosecuted solely for marijuana possession, Attorney General Bill Sorrell said.

T.J. Donovan, state’s attorney for Chittenden County, and Public Safety Commissioner Keith Flynn urged the committee to pass the bill to achieve consistency across the state. All 14 counties have distinct criminal justice policies, Donovan argued, and people charged with marijuana possession are “treated differently and unequally depending on the county they are charged in and the legal representation they can afford.” In Chittenden County, prosecutors rely heavily on diversion, and there has been a de-facto decriminalization of the drug.

Defender General Matthew Valerio told the committee that decriminalization will get rid of the “collateral consequences” — ineligibility for student loans or public housing, for example — that follow people charged with marijuana possession.

Lippert said his committee will have to wrestle with a clear conundrum — “Marijuana doesn’t fall from the sky.”

“How does one come into possession of this contraband or illegal substance without participating some larger illegal activity?” he asked.

H.200, which makes possession of two ounces or less a civil violation rather than a criminal one, would also decriminalize the possession of up to two mature plants and seven immature plants.

Flynn said he doesn’t think decriminalization should apply to cultivation. He told the committee that since a mature plant can produce between three-quarters and one pound of marijuana, the bill could effectively “lure” people into a felony charge.

Others, including Sorrell, cautioned that keeping cultivation illegal, while decriminalizing a small amount of marijuana, could simply push people into the black market, where unsavory marijuana dealers hold sway. Sorrell suggested there might be a middle ground — for instance, reducing the number of plants that would fall within the decriminalization threshold.

Winooski Police Chief Steve McQueen, who spoke on behalf of the Vermont Association of Chiefs of Police, opposes decriminalization, and he gave a starker assessment the impact it would have on drug trafficking.

“As much as you may believe that marijuana is this benign, no-big-deal drug,” McQueen said, “what I’d like to submit to you for consideration is that the vast, vast, vast majority, if not 99.99 percent, of the marijuana that these kids are buying and smoking is coming through the cartels in Mexico. … I will point out to you that the Mexican cartel will chop your head off to get their product to market and when someone buys that half an ounce of marijuana, they are supporting the Mexican cartels. Please do not lose sight of that.”

Both McQueen and Bram Kranichfeld, executive director of the Department of State’s Attorneys & Sheriffs, objected to the bill’s proposed $100 fine for a first-time violation. “The penalty for marijuana should be more than running a stop sign … 100 dollars is way too low,” McQueen said.

Flynn suggested an escalating fine that would rise to $400 if not paid within 90 days. According to Flynn, Massachusetts has struggled to collect fines for marijuana violations, and this fee scale would create a financial incentive to pay the fine promptly. Lippert said the Judicial Bureau in Vermont already has an adequate policy to prevent nonpayment of fines, and the committee has yet to finalize an appropriate amount for the fines.

There was also an across-the-board concern among law enforcement officials that marijuana remain a contraband substance, so decriminalization would not impede their ability to search for and seize the drug.

Another question the committee will grapple with is how to handle “infused products” like lollipops or brownies, where the amount of marijuana is less quantifiable.

Flynn told the lawmakers, “I don’t think we want to be in the business of sorting the marijuana out of the brownie — this would be very expensive.”

At Lippert’s insistence, the discussion did not fixate on the precise amount of marijuana that should be decriminalized, but the question still cropped up periodically. He said at the outset that he was leaning towards one ounce — the amount that Flynn is advocating for — but Sorrell argued for making it just a bit higher.

“I would also just caution that when you have that draconian a difference between an ounce and anything over an ounce, and to the extent that out in the marketplace an ounce is a typical amount of conveyance that, allowing for the vagaries of scales or maybe a dealer who is slightly more generous than the next dealer, you might want to put it slightly over an ounce,” Sorrell said.

At the end of the morning’s testimony, Lippert concluded, “We are in the middle of a shifting world on these issues, and I don’t think we will resolves all of the dilemmas with this bill, but it has the potential to at least move us to a more rational place.”

Alicia Freese

Comments

  1. James Leopold :

    There is no discussion about a few very important aspects of marijuana,and it’s availability and some of the effects on our society.

    1. Marijuana is readily available in most (if not all) high schools and colleges/universities in Vermont.

    2. The fact that pot is illegal, and that a lot of it comes through criminal channels like Mexican drug cartels, and that they are expanding their areas of influence, is very disturbing. Mexican drug cartels are suspect in the recent murders of the District Attorney and Assistant DA in Texas.

    3. If pot were decriminalized, taxed, and sold through drug stores or liquor stores, the revenue from taxation could help fund drug education, rehabilitation, and law enforcement efforts to control narcotics like heroin and cocaine.

    • Peter Liston :

      James,

      I agree that pot should be legal to grow, possess and smoke. But I want to keep it out of the hands of big business.

      I don’t trust the huge corporations any more than I do the Mexican drug cartels.

      Imagine RJR Reynolds meets Anheuser-Busch meets Pfizer meets Pablo Escobar. What a nightmare!

      Keep the distribution small and local.

  2. Jason Wells :

    “As much as you may believe that marijuana is this benign, no-big-deal drug,” McQueen said, “what I’d like to submit to you for consideration is that the vast, vast, vast majority, if not 99.99 percent, of the marijuana that these kids are buying and smoking is coming through the cartels in Mexico.”

    Is this guy serious?? He is so out of touch with reality the large majority of the pot in New England is from California. Times have changed Mr. McQueen as a police Chief I am truly stunned at your words and complete lack of understanding of the pot trade. Ask almost anyone who smokes pot and they will tell you they in no way want that cheap seedy Mexican GARBAGE. A pound of one plant??? that’s gotta be one monster plant under the absolute best of conditions! The real reason they don’t want you to grow your own is the massive funding loss that would happen. Keeping pot illegal keeps the grant, federal and state funds flowing into the police coffers. They are more worried about loosing a revenue stream than anything else!

    • Raymond Fortin :

      I completely agree sir funding cutss he dont know what he is talking about when it comes to marijuana and 80% is cali the other 15 is grown local farmers and maybe the last 5% mexico but no burn out wants nasty mexicant brown

  3. ALEX BARNHAM :

    The mystique of drugs is symptomatic of a nation in chaos. No one needs to enhance a life filled with joy and happiness. In fact, a fulfilled life abhors attempts to mess it up. Too many people are trying to “get” high instead of “becoming” fulfilled. Find someone who is truly happy and fulfilled and ask them if they want to get high. They are naturally “high”, “upbeat”, “happy”, “joyful” and all the other healthy, balanced, inwardly strong attitudes that don’t lead to more toxic escape mechanisms. These attitudes are taught by people who are naturally “high”, “upbeat”, “happy”, “joyful” and all the other healthy, balanced, inwardly strong attitudes. Having more money and power does not make one more happy.

  4. Wendy Raven :

    The best way to end the Mexican and other countries trafficking in marijuana and all the nastiness that comes with it, is to legalize marijuana just as other states have done. It’s time to stop treating people like criminals for a substance that is not only vastly less harmful than the legal drug, alcohol, but is also medically proven to be of great benefit to humanity….and not just as medicine…as food, fuel and shelter. We need to stop this madness that began in the 1930’s for reasons having nothing to do with any dangers of marijuana use. As stated above, it would bring in much needed revenue to be taxed. Let Vermont show some sense and forward thinking….it is inconceivable we are lagging behind states out west…..Vermont has a long history of being sensible and doing the right thing.

    • Peter Liston :

      Good. Just keep it OUT of the hands of big business. Keep production small and local.

  5. Jim Barrett :

    It is always good for everyone to have a legislature and governor pushing for more smoking (pot) while spending millions of our hard earned tax dollars on trying to get people to stop. TYPICAL of todays politicians.

    • Peter Liston :

      Nobody is pushing for more smoking of pot. That’s bogus.

  6. Joe Smith :

    Unbelievable ignorance on the part of a police chief. First, most people, especially here in VT, are NOT smoking pot from Mexico. And they would avoid it at all costs.

    Second, if pot were not illegal, it would not be a revenue source for an illegal drug cartel.

  7. Fred Woogmaster :

    Law based on ignorance becomes ignorant law and must be corrected. Young people know the legal status of marijuana is out of whack. Decriminalization is a half a step forward and a step to the side, useful movement, but a partial solution. Legalization with control and taxation appears to be the most rational approach to this issue; hopefully in my life time!

  8. sandra bettis :

    alcohol and cigarettes are legal but pot is not? that is so wrong.

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