MONTPELIER, VT – Police from across Vermont plan to descend on the State House today to protest ongoing hearings on pending legislation that would decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana, legislation that is supported by the state’s Attorney General, the Governor and many state lawmakers.
The Vermont Police Association, which represents the interests of all levels in law enforcement, the Vermont Police Chiefs Association and the Vermont State Sheriffs Association oppose the two marijuana decriminalization bills currently working their way through the legislature.
The Vermont Troopers’ Association, a labor union representing officers of the Vermont State Police, has taken no position regarding marijuana decriminalization, President Sgt. Mike O’Neil said.
Vergennes Police Chief George Merkel says law-enforcement officers from municipal, county and possibly some state departments are planning to be at the state house from about 8 a.m. to 1 pm. Thursday to confer with legislators and others about what they say are reasons to reject the idea.
As written, House Bill 200, introduced by Rep. Christopher Pearson (P-Burlington) with a tripartisan group of 38 co-sponsors, would remove criminal penalties for possession of up to two ounces of marijuana and replace them with a civil fine of up to $100, similar to a traffic ticket. The bill is likely to be amended by the House Judiciary Committee, who recommended dropping the amount that would bring only a civil fine from two ounces to one, bringing the proposal in line with a companion bill working its way through the Senate.
Senate Bill 48, introduced by Sen. Joe Benning (R-Caledonia) with a tripartisan group of eight co-sponsors, would remove criminal penalties for possession of up to one ounce of marijuana and replace them with a civil fine of up to $100.
At public hearings on the bills last week, the strongest proponent to decriminalization came from an unlikely source: the state’s Attorney General Bill Sorrell, who testified in favor of both bills.
“I’m here in support of decriminalization,” Sorrell told a House committee last Wednesday. “This might be a surprise to some but the reality is possession of small amounts of marijuana has in effect been decriminalized for quite some time in this state.”
At the hearing, Attorney General Sorrel caught some lawmakers — and marijuana advocates — off guard when he added that lawmakers should consider allowing Vermonters to grow “one or two” marijuana plants without fear of prosecution.
“If you take away the ability to grow your own, you’re pushing someone who wants to possess and use marijuana into the marketplace of having to deal with marijuana dealers,” Sorrell said. “And is that the behavior you essentially want to require and foster?”
Public Safety Commissioner Keith Flynn and Chittenden County State’s Attorney T.J. Donovan also testified in favor of the bill, joining marijuana advocates and public defenders voicing their support.
“This bill will bring consistency and fairness to the four corners of our state by treating people equally,” Donovan argued. “A criminal conviction can carry lifelong consequences affecting employment, student loans and education, and professional licensing and on this issue alone we should pass this bill.”
Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin also supports the decriminalization of marijuana, favoring the one ounce possession limit proposed by the Senate over the two ounces proposed by the House.
Steve McQueen, chief of the Winooski Police Department and president of the Vermont Association of Police Chiefs, and Essex County Sheriff Trevor Colby, president of the Vermont Sheriffs’ Association testified against decriminalizing marijuana.
Both officers testified that while marijuana users rarely see the inside of a jail cell, the decriminalization of marijuana would send the wrong message to the state’s youth. McQueen added that the “hammer” of prosecution gives his officers the leverage they need to get offenders, often younger ones, on the “straight and narrow.”
There is strong public support for marijuana decriminalization in Vermont, according to a survey of voters conducted by Public Policy Polling last February. It found nearly two-thirds (63%) of voters support “a change in the law to provide for a fine of up to $150 without jail time for those who possess an ounce or less of marijuana for personal use.”