BENNINGTON COUNTY - The decriminalization of marijuana is now in effect, but some local officials are waving cautionary flags. They believe that it may not only result in increased public use, but cause some other problems as well.

The new law - which went into effect July 1 - prevents Vermont residents from being arrested for carrying less than an ounce of marijuana. The law removes the criminal penalties associated with possession of small amounts of cannabis and replaces them with civil fines ranging from $200 to $500 depending on whether a person is a repeat offender. For those under the age of 21, the offense will be treated the same as possession of alcohol, which would include referral for court diversion for the first and second offense. However, failure to complete the diversion program would result in a $300 fine and a 90-day driver's license suspension for the first offense and a $600 fine and 180-day license suspension for the second offense. A third offense could result in up to 30 days in jail, a $600 fine or both if diversion was not completed for both the first and second offenses. A person under 16 may have a delinquency petition filed and must be given a chance to participate in the diversion program unless the courts determine otherwise.

The new law is one that Chief of the Manchester Police Department Michael Hall believes will lead to more open use of the drug. Still, that is not his greatest concern. Hall said he believed that the new legislation will have disastrous consequences because it sends the message to youngsters that using marijuana is no longer against the law.

"I think you're going to see some tragic results of what they've done here," Hall said. "It's just irresponsible leadership in my opinion. I honestly believe that there are going to be some people that are sorry that they did this, but I hope I'm wrong."

Another problem facing law enforcement officials, Hall said, is that the legislature did not put anything in the law to "prepare themselves for collateral damage." As an example, Hall said that lawmakers did not include a process within the law allowing police officers to deal with drivers operating under the influence of marijuana.

When discussions were occurring about the issue during the last legislative session, Hall said that one argument made in favor of decriminalizing marijuana was that it would not result in a criminal record for students - thereby no longer preventing them from gaining enrollment into college. The argument though is one that both Hall and Chief of the Rutland Police Department James Baker said is untrue.

Baker recently served as an interim police chief in Manchester prior to Hall's appointment to that post.

"My personal belief is that we had earlier what the bill provides now," said Baker. "I mean there was a lot of conversation that just wasn't factually true about people being convicted for small amounts of marijuana. It's just not factually true; it wasn't happening. And a lot of those folks were not receiving criminal records."

Vermont State Senator Richard Sears (D - Bennington) - a proponent of the new legislation - said he voted for the bill because it "deals with the reality of a frequently used substance." The important piece of the legislation to Sears was how the new law would deal with individuals under the age of 21.

With the new law now in place, Sears said that he does not believe that it will lead to increased use.

"I think we became the 19th or 17th state to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana and those states have not seen what I would consider a huge increase," said Sears. "But obviously what happens in Colorado and Washington we'll be looking at carefully, and those are states [that] basically legalized it, it's much different. I think there you would see an increased use."

Baker believes the decriminalization of marijuana is just the beginning. He said it is not inconceivable to think that the legalization of marijuana is not too far behind.

"My concern is that there is a heavy lobbying effort going on from the national level to bring complete legalization of marijuana," said Baker. "I think we saw it with the medical marijuana and now we've seen it with the decrim (inalization) and my prediction is that maybe not next legislative session, but the legislative session after that, there are certain legislators in the state who are being influenced by out of state lobbying and you will see a move for legalization."

The law comes at a time when Bennington County has seen more drug activity than in the past. On Jan. 16 law enforcement officials conducted Operation County Strike - an initiative they had been working on since mid- August 2012. The operation cost $115,000 to carry out - $37,000 of which was spent directly on drug purchases that included heroin, cocaine, crack cocaine, morphine, hallucinogenic mushrooms, opiates, prescription pills and marijuana as well as for information from informants.

Over 120 individual controlled purchases of illegal drugs were made. In the end, 68 defendants were arrested resulting in a total of 467 criminal charges.

In 2011, the Manchester Police Department arrested 15 people for crimes related to drugs. That number nearly doubled in 2012 with police arresting 28 people on drug-related charges. So far this year those numbers are down with only nine people being arrested about midway through the year.

The growing trend of marijuana use was evident as far back as 2000. According to data on the number of admissions to substance abuse treatment services between 1998 and 2008, reflected in a study conducted by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Vermont was one of the top 10 states in the country nearly every year for primary marijuana admissions per 100,000 population for ages 12 and above.

In 1998, Vermont ranked 14th in the nation with 156 admissions per 100,000. By 2002, however, Vermont ranked third with 238 admissions behind only Oregon and Iowa who had 292 and 259 admissions, respectively. From 2003 to 2008, Vermont ranked between sixth and eighth in the nation - the exception being 2004 when it ranked 13th with 174 admissions.

In 2008 - when Vermont ranked sixth along with Iowa - there were a total of 1,227 admissions. The data showed that of those, men used marijuana more frequently than women and adolescents between the ages of 12 and 19 years-old were by far the biggest users. Twenty- to 24-year-olds came in a distant second and 25-29 year-olds accounted for another substantial portion of overall consumption.

According to a survey done by Healthy Vermonters 2020, the percentage of students in 2011 in grades 9-12 who had ever used marijuana was higher than any other kind of drug at 39 percent. Cigarettes came in a distant second at 24 percent with prescription drugs and hallucinogens coming in third and fourth at 14 and 10 percent, respectively.

Organizations like The Collaborative are trying to combat the problem through a number of programs. Some of the programs are "passive" when it comes to attempting to prevent or educate the youth about drug use or drug abuse. Instead, these passive programs focus more on providing teenagers with an alternative to using drugs by providing free events they can participate in - such as free skates at Riley Rink. In addition to the passive programs, The Collaborative also has "active" programs, which are focused on education - the Refuse to Use program being one example.

Those students who participate in the Refuse to Use Program must sign a pledge to be drug and alcohol free and attend five classes dealing with drugs and alcohol, according to Executive Director of The Collaborative Maryann Morris. In return, students engaging in the program receive free passes to Stratton Mountain. The Collaborative tracks those students participating in the Refuse to Use program and if it is learned that a student was caught using drugs or alcohol their pass is revoked.

At least one local school - Burr and Burton Academy - entertained the possibility of mandatory drug testing for those students who were going to participate in extra curricular activities as part of their drug and alcohol policy.

The school was considering enacting the policy as a way of being proactive in addressing drug and alcohol use, but ultimately decided not to initiate it in the 2013-2014 school year. However, Tashjian did not rule out the possibility of it being incorporated into the school's drug and alcohol policy at a later date.

"The most compelling [reason] is that it's simple and it creates clear accountabilty. The reasons not to do it are it's really attacking a symptom rather than getting at kind of the root cause and culture in our society," said Headmaster of BBA Mark Tashjian. "It's emphasis [is] on catching kids doing something wrong and applying consequences rather than working on kind of the proactive change in culture to get kids to make different choices."

The invasive nature of drug testing was also a problem with mandatory drug testing, Tashjian said. He said that some would argue that the school should hold itself to a higher standard and that drug testing did not show respect or trust among the students.

Even with marijuana now being decriminalized, both Baker and Morris said people should realize that there are health risks associated with the use of marijuana.

"There's a lot of risk of harm for health and there's a lot of misinformation out there around risk of harm for health," said Morris. "That's what we talk about in our Refuse to Use classes mostly is that risk of harm healthwise if you were to choose to use marijuana."