Crime and Justice

Sorrell joins two ex-attorneys general to back pot legalization

Bill Sorrell

Attorney General William Sorrell. File photo by Elizabeth Hewitt/VTDigger

Attorney General William Sorrell is calling on lawmakers to move forward with a proposal to legalize recreational marijuana.

He joined former Attorneys General M. Jerome Diamond and Kim Cheney in penning a letter this week to the Legislature backing the governor’s new approach to marijuana.

“Instead of subsidizing gangs and cartels with a failed prohibition policy, we believe Vermont should focus on reducing the harms associated with marijuana and other drug use through prevention, education, treatment and smart enforcement strategies,” the letter states.

“We strongly believe that these goals can best be achieved through regulation, not prohibition,” the letter continues.

Sorrell said Wednesday the letter is consistent with views that he’s held for some time. In September, he told his staff that he believes the General Assembly will pass legalization legislation this year.

With shifts in thinking on criminal justice policy and the political will for legalization, he said, he came to believe that the “stars were aligned.”

The letter cites numbers in a report published by the Rand Corp. last year that estimates some 80,000 Vermonters use marijuana, spending about $175 million annually to buy from the illicit market.

“These numbers do not tell the story of a policy that is working for Vermont,” the letter states.

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Sorrell said the current policy is not working. “You can’t look for law enforcement to win this fight, and so I and two of the former attorneys general decided to make the statement that we have through the letter,” he said.

Sorrell tied the support for easing laws on marijuana to a broader shift away from hard-line policies regarding drugs and criminal justice.

“I think more and more Vermonters are coming to the view that if you have someone with addiction issues, throwing them in jail, having the criminal justice system deal with them, and expecting that they’re going to come out better and cured and whatever is wishful thinking,” Sorrell said.

Last month, Cheney spoke out in support of legalization in an advertisement for the Vermont Coalition to Regulate Marijuana.

David Cahill

David Cahill, acting executive director of the Department of State’s Attorneys and Sheriffs, speaks at the Statehouse. File photo by Elizabeth Hewitt/VTDigger

Sorrell’s stance on pot has no binding influence on how marijuana possession cases will be handled by prosecutors in the state, according to David Cahill, acting executive director of the Department of State’s Attorneys and Sheriffs.

Cahill said that Vermont’s 14 state’s attorneys prosecute the majority of drug and drugged driving cases in the state. It’s “very seldom” that they prosecute marijuana possession charges now, he said.

In Cahill’s other role, as Windsor County state’s attorney, he does not have any marijuana possession charges in his caseload.

“The bill for better or for worse will have an impact on our caseload,” Cahill said. The state could see an increase in drugged driving charges, especially with marijuana-driven tourism, he said. But legalization would also cut down on the already minimal number of marijuana possession cases prosecutors take up.

State’s attorneys across Vermont have a range of opinions on the legalization of pot, Cahill said, but there are some common themes. He said most prosecutors are respectful of the rights of adults to engage in legal activities but have concerns about public health impacts.

Vermont’s chief federal prosecutor, U.S. Attorney Eric Miller, said his decisions will be guided by an eight-point memo issued by then-U.S. Deputy Attorney General James Cole in 2013.

Issued in advance of the legalization of recreational marijuana in Colorado and other states, the memo lists the priorities of the Department of Justice when it comes to the drug.

The points include preventing distribution to minors, ensuring profits don’t go to gangs or criminal groups, cracking down so that legal sales aren’t used to cover up illegal trafficking, and preventing drugged driving.

Miller noted that the memo doesn’t provide for immunity from federal charges, but that it does provide guidance for how to “allocate our limited investigative and prosecutorial resources.”

At the moment, Miller said, his office does not prosecute marijuana crimes often — which he characterized as a matter of priorities.

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“That’s a function of our decision to allocate our resources to what we view as the biggest law enforcement problems in the state of Vermont, and as everyone knows we’re facing a huge opiate crisis,” Miller said.

The legalization bill, S.241, has passed two Senate committees so far — Judiciary and Finance. Lawmakers on the Appropriations Committee are reviewing it now and are expected to vote Monday.

If it passes, the bill would be on the Senate floor the middle of next week.

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