By Guy Page
Several bills introduced by members of the House Judiciary Committee seek to push back current legal boundaries on marijuana and heavier drugs.
H.251 would expunge misdemeanor marijuana possession convictions imposed prior legalization last year and decriminalize possession of less than two ounces of marijuana or 10 grams of hashish.
The bill is sponsored by House Judiciary Committee Chair Maxine Grad, and two other Judiciary members, Burlington lawmakers Selene Colburn and Barbara Rachelson. The other sponsor is Sam Young of Glover, lead sponsor for H.196, a House bill that would legalize the retail sale of marijuana.
It’s legal now to possess up to one ounce of marijuana. H.251 would decriminalize twice that amount. Two ounces is enough marijuana for about 120 joints, depending on the strength of the THC. Decriminalization carries no criminal record or penalty. Instead, a violation will incur a civil penalty – similar to a parking ticket – of not more than $100 for first offense; $200 for second offense; and more than $500 for a third or subsequent offense. No person shall possess more than two ounces of marijuana or more than ten grams of hashish or more than 19 four mature marijuana plants or eight immature marijuana plants.
Last year’s legalization of possession of an ounce of marijuana seems to have empowered a strong, organized illegal retail market, at least in large cities like Burlington. For example, last month police arrested the owner of Good Times Gallery, across Church Street from City Hall, on a federal warrant for sale of marijuana.
While some Vermonters say police should respond with tough enforcement and the Legislature should rethink legal possession, Vermont Attorney General TJ Donovan and others elected officials instead now say the best response is taxed, regulated and fully legalized cultivation and retail sale. It should be noted that in Colorado and other states where retail sales are legal, the black market continues to thrive anyway. The notion that Vermont can legalize our way out of black market marijuana sales is not supported by the experience of other states.
H.250, a ‘tax and regulate’ marijuana bill in House Judiciary, resembles S.54, which is on the cusp of approval by the Senate. It would impose a 10 percent tax, about half of what Sam Young’s H196 would impose. Neither bill comes close to the 26 percent tax the Scott administration says is needed to fund the multi-million dollar regulatory cost of tax and regulation and also public safety, education and prevention programs. No-one is expecting any new revenue for other programs. It will be hard enough to pay for the bare-bones costs incurred by ‘tax and regulate’ legalization.
Moving on to Judiciary-member backed bills about harder drugs:
H.102 would legalize so-called ‘safe drug consumption’ programs like safe-shoot-up spaces and needle exchanges. It would also limit criminal liability or civil forfeiture for users, staff or organizers of these programs. Drug users would have a ‘safe space’ to come and shoot up, get new needles, get advice on treatment, receive assistance in case of overdose, etc.
H.151 would limit seizure of assets of accused criminals, including drug dealers, by eliminating judicial forfeiture in the case of plea bargains. Judges could only seize property if the alleged perpetrator – not always but often a drug dealer – is convicted of the underlying offense. But if the accused criminal cops to a lesser plea, there would be no forfeiture. In effect this protects the assets of drug dealers, because they have more legal options that won’t result in forfeiture of their house, boat, car, etc..
Furthermore, H.151 redirects the use of the assets away from law enforcement and to the Legislature’s General Fund. Current law requires that 45 percent of the money left over after paying the costs of selling the property, liens, animal care etc. must go to law enforcement. H151 redistributes that money to the State of Vermont General Fund – which is under control of the Legislature.
Supporters of relaxing Vermont’s drug laws often portray their efforts as good for the addicted consumer without making life any easier for the drug dealers. H151, however, would seem to be an exception. It also would deprive law enforcement of a much-needed source of revenue, thus requiring taxpayers to bear a greater share of the burden for fighting illegal drugs.
H.103 would restructure drug possession laws to make possession of marijuana, cocaine, LSD, Heroin, and other illegal drugs a misdemeanor and possession with intent to sell as a felony.
At present, possession of these drugs is a felony. As reported in State House Headliners Feb. 2, supporters of H103 also seem to support eventual decriminalization of all hard drugs, as shown by their support for Portugal’s decriminalization about 20 years ago.
H.162 would remove possession of the narcotic buprenorphine from the misdemeanor category of narcotic drugs. This drug is used to reduce symptoms of opiate addiction withdrawal. The bill as written does not assign buprenorphine to any other legal category.
Statehouse Headliners is intended primarily to educate, not advocate. It is e-mailed to an ever-growing list of interested Vermonters, public officials and media. Guy Page is affiliated with the Vermont Energy Partnership; the Vermont Alliance for Ethical Healthcare; and Physicians, Families and Friends for a Better Vermont.