Local lawmakers debate easing marijuana penalties

Saturday April 6, 2013

BRATTLEBORO -- Imposing a lifelong criminal record for possessing a small amount of marijuana "simply doesn't make sense," state Rep. Dick Marek says.

So the Newfane Democrat and member of the House Judiciary Committee is among those who believe Vermont should decriminalize small-time pot possession.

While stopping short of legalization, a House bill now under consideration would impose a civil fine rather than a criminal penalty for carrying an ounce or two of marijuana.

"Our current marijuana laws are not terribly effective, and they also have some significant consequences that I think are not either intended or appropriate," Marek said Friday.

Judiciary Committee members have been taking testimony on the bill, which initially proposed a civil fine of not more than $100 for possession of "2 ounces of marijuana, two mature marijuana plants and seven immature plants" for those age 21 and up.

Anyone under 21 caught with pot or plants within those same parameters would be "subject to the same penalties as provided in law for underage possession of alcohol."

Some aspects of the bill are changing, however. Marek said it appears that the possession threshold for civil penalties will be lowered from 2 ounces to 1 ounce.

Also, support seems to have waned for decriminalizing pot-plant growth. While Attorney General William Sorrell reportedly supports the bill's growth provision, state Public Safety Commissioner Keith Flynn opposes it.

Flynn contends that a single mature plant can produce up to a pound of marijuana -- 16 times the maximum amount that lawmakers now are considering to be eligible for a civil fine.

Marek said he understands that argument.

"If you grow your own, you are likely to grow more than an ounce -- though you don't have to harvest more than that," Marek said.

But he also believes that decriminalizing small-scale marijuana cultivation has a positive side.

"It takes the current criminal dealers who bring the stuff into the state out of the picture," Marek said.

No matter how those parameters eventually are set, Marek said the imposition of civil fines rather than criminal penalties is the most important aspect of the bill.

The legislation says minor marijuana violations "shall not result in the creation of a criminal-history record of any kind, and no information about the violation shall be maintained in any criminal record or database."

Under current Vermont law -- which includes exceptions for some medical uses -- it is a misdemeanor criminal offense to possess up to 2 ounces of marijuana. Possessing more than that -- or growing any marijuana -- can lead to a felony charge.

Marek said young people arrested for possessing a small amount of marijuana can pay a "relatively small fine" that nonetheless will haunt them later in life.

"They find out that, because they have a criminal conviction, they can't get student loans, they can't enlist in the military, they can't get housing -- any number of consequences which never were within their contemplation," Marek said. "That simply doesn't make sense. It basically taints a person's entire life for what was in most cases a very minor infraction."

Marek believes the proposed legislation in his committee could remedy that. And he says it's time for a change because the state's marijuana laws simply are not working.

"We obviously are not eliminating marijuana use in the state of Vermont by having our current legal structure," Marek said.

The state Senate also is considering similar marijuana legislation.

In other news related to Windham County and its legislators:

-- Rep. David Deen, a Westminster Democrat, said the House Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources Committee -- which he chairs -- developed a wide-ranging bill that "does a number of small but important things for the outdoor sports."

The House gave the bill final approval Friday.

The legislation's ban on wild boars -- which officials warn are an invasive species that could escape from hunting facilities -- grabbed some headlines on Friday.

Deen said the bill "protects Vermont from the ravages of feral pigs by disallowing their importation."

But he added that the legislation touches on many other subjects.

"It allows for the Fish and Wildlife Board to shift the boundaries of the wildlife-management areas to respond to shifting deer populations. This is of import to county forest landowners as they try to protect regenerating forest from deer overbrowsing," Deen said.

The bill also "sets out stiffer penalties for baiting bears," Deen said. "It allows bear-dog trainers and bow hunters to carry a firearm during their activities in the woods; it allows for a therapeutic fishing license so professionals can take their charges out to fish on a single license; it sets up a committee for looking at the problem of road hunting around Vermont and what some solutions might be."

-- Windham County Sen. Jeanette White is searching for some solutions for her stalled campaign-finance reform bill.

The legislation, which the Putney Democrat helped to introduce earlier in this session, was "ordered to lie" on March 28. That procedural term means the bill was set aside, and White acknowledges that "ordered to lie" sometimes is a death knell for a piece of legislation.

"But in this case, it doesn't mean that," White said, adding that the bill will again come up for debate in the Senate some time next week.

"I am confident it will pass," she said.

The legislation sets donation limits, requires more-frequent reporting of campaign contributions and establishes civil penalties for violations. White said the latter two provisions spurred opposition.

She does not believe the bill should have been cause for much concern among lawmakers.

"Most of it is already existing language," White said.

But Windham County Sen. Peter Galbraith, a Townshend Democrat, said the bill's proposed penalties and reporting requirements should be tweaked.

During the March 28 debate, Galbraith also successfully proposed an amendment that would ban direct political contributions to state candidates from corporations and unions.

That amendment was approved 21-8, and Galbraith said such contributions have been banned in federal campaigns since 1906.

"This would be a huge change in Vermont law," Galbraith said.

White, however, voted against Galbraith's amendment. She worries that, in spite of the ban, corporations and unions still would give to candidates -- only in a manner that is much more difficult to track.

For instance, a donation might come from "some unidentified checking account," White said.

"My concern is, it's better to have transparency," White said.

The bill also seeks to limit contributions to independent-expenditure political-action committees, sometimes known as "super-PACs."

Echoing White, Galbraith said he believes there's a "good chance" the campaign-finance bill eventually will pass.

-- Rep. Valerie Stuart, a Brattleboro Democrat who sits on the House Education Committee, also has reason for optimism: She believes a "Flexible Pathways" bill will move successfully through the legislature.

The bill, which has been approved in the Senate and referred to Stuart's committee, seeks to combine and expand programs including dual enrollment and early college into a "Flexible Pathways Initiative."

Two main goals of that initiative are increasing the number of students who finish high school and encouraging more students to undertake -- and finish -- some sort of post-secondary education.

Stuart said a growing number of jobs require "at least some sort of post-secondary education."

And while she said Vermont's 83 percent high school graduation rate is good, Stuart points out that only 64 percent of those who enter college in Vermont actually graduate.

Those who drop out of college, Stuart said, "lose money, and they lose opportunity."

Advocates for dual-enrollment programs, which allow high-school students to take college courses, say the experience cuts costs for students and better prepares them for post-secondary education.

Such programs have been successful in Windham County. And Stuart says there is broad support among Vermont's education officials -- as well as in the governor's proposed budget -- for expanding dual enrollment.

"It's been a good team effort," she said.

-- Rep. Mike Mrowicki, a Putney Democrat, said he has introduced a bill that "would put into statute a woman's right to choose as expressed in the Roe vs. Wade decision 40 years ago."

Mrowicki maintains that current Vermont law on abortion rights "is, plainly put, horrible and antiquated."

"If legal precedents set by Roe vs. Wade and a similar Vermont case were overturned, a woman's right to choose would be taken away, and anyone associated with giving information or assisting with these services would be imprisoned for 10 years and fined," Mrowicki said.

"I would hope that would be highly unlikely," he added. "However, given some of the rhetoric from some men in the last election cycle who don't even understand basic biology, many of us don't want to take a chance that this could be overturned by a political-activist court."

The bill, Mrowicki said, "preserves a woman's right to choose and maintains that decision as one between a woman, her doctor, her faith and her family."

-- Mrowicki on Friday also sought to clarify his votes last week in favor of the state budget and a controversial revenue plan that featured additional taxes.

The tax proposal, which passed the House but is opposed by Gov. Peter Shumlin, included more revenue from higher-income residents, an additional 50-cent-per-pack cigarette tax and imposition of the state sales tax on currently exempt items such as soda, candy, bottled water and dietary supplements.

Also, the plan raises Vermont's meals and rooms tax by .5 percent.

"While I didn't agree with all the policies attendant to the budget, in principle, I agree with the implicit values to help move Vermont forward," Mrowicki said.

"In regard to raising revenues, I agree with asking the highest earners to make a little bit larger contribution to funding those initiatives. Alongside that is the political reality that, if one hopes to get something for your district, you better vote for the budget," Mrowicki said.

"Putney has benefited from budget line items and grants from the state. I would hope that could continue in the future," he added. "You just can't say you're against spending money in other places in the state and then ask for spending in your district. You just can't have it both ways, which is why I voted for the budget."

Mike Faher is the political beat writer for the Reformer. can be reached at mfaher@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.


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