More face sanctions since Vermont decriminalized pot

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MONTPELIER >> What Vermont has lost in arrests since decriminalizing marijuana in 2013 it's more than made up for by issuing tickets for pot possession.

Last year, law enforcement around the state filed paperwork with the court for 1,366 adult civil marijuana complaints, more than double the amount of arrests on file with the Vermont Crime Information Center in 2012 when a similar offense was still criminal, according to records obtained by The Associated Press.

Vermont's law replaced criminal penalties with civil fines — similar to a traffic ticket — for possession of up to an ounce of marijuana or 5 grams of hashish. People under the age of 21 caught with small amounts of pot now face possible referral to court diversion for a first offense, potential civil penalties and/or license suspension, and criminal penalties for a third violation.

Previously, possession of up to 2 ounces of marijuana was punishable by jail terms ranging from six months to two years.

Attorney General Bill Sorrell suspects that an unintended benefit is that the state is drawing in more revenue from the tickets than it did when the violation was criminal. The tickets carry fines of up to $200 for a first offense and up to $500 for a third offense.

"It's a heck of a lot more money than the state was making when it was criminal because so few pot cases were being prosecuted through the court system," he said.

Vermont is among 14 states that have decriminalized pot, according to NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Legislation. And Vermont isn't alone in seeing civil violations outpace previous criminal charges, either: Rhode Island decriminalized small amounts of pot in 2013 and has since seen more civil marijuana violations than it had misdemeanor marijuana offenses.

Bill Johnson, executive director of the National Association of Police Organizations, said it's far easier and less time consuming for police to issue a notice of a civil infraction than to make an arrest for a criminal case. There's less paperwork and less police and other resources used, he said.

In Vermont's Chittenden County, the state's most populous, police filed paperwork with the court for more than 300 civil violations last year, though some of those were dismissed. That's compared with 241 misdemeanor marijuana possession cases in 2012, before the decriminalization law passed.

Of those 2012 cases, 48 were declined, 52 were dismissed and about 23 completed a court diversion program, according to the prosecutor's office.

"We send the majority of them to diversion or we just decline to prosecute," said county prosecutor TJ Donovan.

Before the civil violation was in place, someone who possessed a small amount of marijuana would face no consequences because practical considerations made it prohibitive to send someone to criminal court, Lt. Douglas Allen of the Colchester Police Department said.

"Now, if an officer encounters someone possessing marijuana, some sanction is able to be brought," he said.

And it's likely much better for the accused because they don't have a criminal pot conviction on their record which impacts their ability to get public housing or student loans, said Defender General Matthew Valerio.


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