Trafficking more than 7 grams of heroin -- up to 30 years in prison and $1 million fine.
The state of Vermont's penalties for drug possession or sale range greatly. A first-time offender caught with a small amount of marijuana will likely walk away with a citation to appear in court, where he or she will be made to pay a fine. But a person with three or more felony convictions who gets caught with a felony amount of any drug may end up in prison for the rest of his or her life.
Still, law enforcement officials in Windham County say either the state's drug penalties need work or the way they are implemented needs to change.
"I do think the penalties are adequate," said John Martin, chief of police in Brattleboro. "But we do not have the jail space to use the penalties as written."
Martin also said he is not opposed to giving some convicted criminals a break here and there -- sometimes first-time offenders just need the arrest and a light sentence to teach them a lesson -- but said there are some people who need to serve time in jail.
"Rarely does anyone get the penalties that are in place," he said.
Sgt. Eric Albright, patrol commander at the Vermont State Police's Brattleboro barracks, agreed that the laws on the books are
"There are some pretty stiff penalties," he said. "What it boils down to -- obviously there's not enough room in the jails and prisons to incarcerate everybody (who is convicted)."
Therefore, jail time is avoided for many facing a drug charge.
State's Attorney Dan Davis explained that handing out the maximum sentence depends on the case.
"It depends on a whole host of different factors," he said.
Since there are no mandatory sentencing guidelines in Vermont, Davis said, in considering sentence, the factors that need to be looked at include the offense that is committed, the person's criminal record and the impact the crime had on the community.
"All those things are factored into a sentence," Davis said.
The severity of Vermont's drug penalties depend on the amount of a particular drug a person is caught with. For example, with cocaine, possession of less than 21/2 grams, a misdemeanor, carries a maximum penalty of up to one year in prison and a $2,000 fine. Possessing more than 21/2 grams may mean up to five years in prison and a $100,000 fine. More than one ounce could earn someone up to 10 years and a $250,000 fine.
But if you sell cocaine, the penalties get stiffer -- all the way up to a trafficking charge with 30 years in prison and a $1 million fine if you are caught with 300 grams or more.
The trafficking penalties, Albright said, were added within the past few years and carry long prison sentences to those caught with large amounts of any particular drug.
For marijuana, 50 pounds qualifies as trafficking. For methamphetamine, it is 300 grams. For heroin, 7 grams or more is needed for a trafficking charge. If one bag of heroin is roughly 30 milligrams, as Albright said, then about 233 bags are needed to qualify as trafficking.
"Which is an awful lot," Albright said. To him, the trafficking amounts written in Vermont law are far too high. Just one pound of marijuana, he said, clearly is not for personal use and should qualify as trafficking.
"I think that threshold amounts for certain charges are a little wacky," Albright said.
Detective Mark Carignan, who handles narcotics investigations for the Brattleboro Police Department, says that the sentences handed to drug users are generally right on.
But when it comes to drug dealers, he has a different feeling.
"It's just not enough."
He gave an example of a first-offender drug dealer in the Vermont criminal system. He or she gets convicted and sentenced to about 10 or 12 months in prison, then, after probation, they're back on the street, most likely dealing again.
"It needs to be a deterrent," he said of the sentence.
It's not all bad, though.
In a situation where a person is caught bringing drugs into Vermont with intent to sell, Albright said, that person is more apt to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.
Those are the types of people, he said, that are coming from out of state, making a lot of money and "destroying the fabric of the community."
Albright shared a story of one of his drug busts: A man with a history of drug arrests stopped in Windham County. He was caught with roughly 300 bags of heroin and crack-cocaine and ended up being sentenced to a minimum of three years in prison.
"I was pretty happy with that."
Patrick J. Crowley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or 802-254-2311, ext. 277.
Part 1: The drug trade hits home
Part 2: The Perfect Route
Part 3: The meth issue: No one is immune
Part 4: Searching for the cure