Editorial: Is decriminalization of marijuana no big deal?

The House’s vote on Friday to decriminalize possession of an ounce or less of marijuana makes sense for three over-arching reasons: 1) the current penalty under existing law is excessive and has life-long repercussions that are unreasonable; 2) the current law is not prosecuted consistently throughout the state; and 3) in the proposed bill it’s still an illegal drug.
Current law requires a criminal conviction of anyone in possession of any amount of marijuana. If convicted that means a student age 18 or over, or any adult, could end up with a life-long criminal record that could prevent them from receiving federal student loans, housing assistance, certain jobs and some professional licenses and could face up to a $500 fine and six months in jail.
In some Vermont courts, the offender may be offered court diversion, which allows the opportunity to avoid a criminal record, but that is not offered uniformly throughout the state.
The proposed law, which passed the house Friday in a 98-44 vote, would make possession of an ounce or less of marijuana a civil offense, much like a traffic violation. Offenders ticketed would face a fine of up to $300, but no jail time and it would not appear on a person’s criminal record. The bill also specifies that smoking marijuana while driving is prohibited and offenders could face a fine of $500.
Furthermore, the bill, H.200, proposes that possession of more than an ounce and possession of any marijuana plants would remain a criminal offense and be prosecuted the same as under current law. For those who consider marijuana a gateway drug and still want to prosecute drug dealers in a criminal way, that part of the law remains the same.
The driving force behind the change was the harsh repercussions of current law that has negatively altered the lives of many young adults for possession of a drug that many say is no more harmful than alcohol. Fourteen other states also treat possession of small amounts of marijuana as a civil offense.
Opponents of the measure argue that it sends the wrong message by suggesting possession of marijuana would be thought of as legal if the proposed bill is passed, and that it is a gateway drug that leads users to more dangerous drug use. Neither argument held sway.
The House is scheduled to have further debate on the bill this Tuesday, during which amendments might be added. After House passage, which is expected, the bill will be sent over to the Senate, where modifications might also be made.
Of the likely suggestions, legalization of marijuana is the leading candidate. There are some members of both parties that support legalization, including Progressive Chris Pearson, Burlington, who introduced H.200 and said he supports regulation and taxation of the drug. The Burlington Free Pressquoted Rep. Tom Burditt, a Republican from West Rutland, as suggesting that regulation and taxation “at $2 a gram would yield about $33 million or more in tax revenue a year; plus create a business opportunity.”
But other supporters of the decriminalization bill are opposed to legalization, including Rep. Bill Lippert, D-Hinesburg, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, which crafted the bill. Lippert told the Free Presshe did not want marijuana to be promoted as alcohol is now and did not “want corporate America to have another drug of potential abuse in their grasp.”
We’d argue that legalizing marijuana is jumping the gun, and that the current measure is enough of a leap to make until the dust settles and law enforcement, states attorneys and the attorney general can assess the impact and better predict what other changes may foretell. Until then, H.200 corrects a current travesty in the state’s laws without changing the fact that drug possession, use and harvesting it are still very much illegal — and criminal if the amount exceeds an ounce.
That’s progress, and really not all that much to get riled about.
Angelo S. Lynn

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