Two Vt. senators strive to loosen laws on pot
Published: Wednesday, October 10, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, October 10, 2012 23:10
Two Vermont senators’ hopes are high to decriminalize marijuana in the Green Mountain State.
Sen. Philip Baruth and Sen. Joe Benning are planning a bill that would revamp the criminal system by changing the degree of offense for possession and how it would be penalized, Baruth said.
Possession of one ounce of marijuana or less would be reduced to $100 and the case would be processed as a civil offense rather than a criminal one.
“Right now we’re working to reduce penalties — to decriminalize,” Baruth said. “Legalizing marijuana is a huge step that the majority is not ready to take.”
Decriminalization is different from legalization because it does not change the classification of the offense, but regards it as a lesser one, he said.
Baruth said his goal is to reform the misguided and expensive laws he believes are excessive for correction and processing action, which would limit the amount of state arrests.
“The system we have now is both time consuming and costly,” Baruth said. “The state is a little prison crazy and the bill would change these penalties.”
Benning, a Republican, said he approached Baruth, a Democrat, and suggested they join forces to seek change.
“As a practicing criminal defense attorney who also happens to be a Republican, I’ve seen too often how our marijuana laws cost the taxpayers needless money and permanently impact ‘offenders’ who have really done nothing to harm society,” Benning said.
Marijuana laws aren’t working, Benning said. Legislators are reacting to public pressure that affirms this.
“I think the conservatives suddenly realized that 70 years worth of taxpayer dollars spent to conduct police actions and court proceedings wasn’t working the way it was intended,” he said.
Diana Gonzalez, alcohol and other drug educator from the Living Well Center, said bills of this nature often gain a lot of support without people checking the facts.
“A lot of times, policies gain support and get passed based on misperception,” Gonzalez said. “Numbers show that 70 percent of UVM students haven’t even smoked pot this past month.”
Although not in favor of decriminalization’s step toward legalization, Gonzalez said the reduced penalty that the new law would enforce is better from an educational standpoint.
“By skipping the legal proceedings and just paying a fine, the penalty is quicker and appropriately matches the situation,” she said. “Quick response and penalties increase the likelihood that people will learn from the experience.”
Information for or against marijuana is very biased, Gonzalez said. The real problem lies with the fact that Vermont has the highest per capita marijuana users in addition to alcohol users.
“Misuse and poverty are really connected,” she said. “We should find policies that allow Vermont to be healthier and decrease substance use.”
Sophomore Francesca Hall, who is working for Baruth’s campaign, disagrees.
“Before weed was decriminalized in LA, where I’m from, police officers were responding late to burglary and assault calls because they were working a drug bust where someone had under an ounce of marijuana,” Hall said.
She said that those busted for possession added to the overpopulation in state prisons.
“We shouldn’t be using resources to bring first time offenders to trials and jails,” she said. “The state’s money can be put to much better use — like supporting a single-payer health care system and the closing of Vermont Yankee.”
Congressional policies need a majority vote to get the bill out of a committee and onto the floor.
Baruth said he is confident that the bill will pass in January.
“I have been talking to senators and legislators trying to change hearts and minds,” he said.