Criminal penalties for possession up to one ounce now replaced with civil violation and fine
MONTPELIER, VT – Vermonters possessing small amounts of marijuana are no longer be subject to arrest due to a bill adopted earlier this year taking effect early Monday morning, making Vermont the 17th state to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana.
House Bill 200, sponsored by Rep. Christopher Pearson (P-Burlington) with a tripartisan group of 38 cosponsors, passed the House in April before sailing though the Senate less than a month later. Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin (D) signed the bill into law in early June.
It ends criminal penalties for the possession of up to an ounce of marijuana or five grams of hashish and replaces them with fines of $200 for a first offense, $300 for a second offense, and $500 for subsequent offenses.
Possession of more than an ounce remains a criminal offense, as does the cultivation of any number of plants.
“This is a much-needed step forward toward a more sensible marijuana policy,” said Matt Simon, legislative analyst for the Marijuana Policy Project, which lobbied in support of the legislation. “Nobody should be subjected to life-altering criminal penalties simply for possessing a substance that is objectively less harmful than alcohol.”
The bill had the support of Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell and Public Safety Commissioner Keith Flynn, who both testified in favor of the bill in April.
“I’m here in support of decriminalization,” Attorney General Sorrell testified in April. “This might be a surprise to some but the reality is possession of small amounts of marijuana has in effect been decriminalized for quite some time in this state.”
Sorrell even suggested the legislature take the measure one step further, and allow Vermonters to grow “one or two” cannabis plants at home, although that did not work its way into the final language of the bill.
MPP’s Matt Simon agrees, saying that the next logical step is for Vermont to regulate and tax the recreational use of marijuana for adults.
“There is still work to be done and support is growing for more comprehensive marijuana policy reform,” Simon says. “Until marijuana is regulated and taxed similarly to alcohol, sales will remain uncontrolled and profits will benefit illegal actors instead of legitimate, taxpaying businesses. Marijuana prohibition is a failed policy, and it is time for Vermont to explore the possibility of adopting a new approach.”
The only opposition to the common-sense legislation came from the the Vermont Police Association, which represents the interests of all levels in law enforcement, the Vermont Police Chiefs Association and the Vermont State Sheriffs Association. The three law enforcement groups protested at the State House during public hearings on the decriminalization bills.
Steve McQueen, chief of the Winooski Police Department and president of the Vermont Association of Police Chiefs, and Essex County Sheriff Trevor Colby, president of the Vermont Sheriffs’ Association testified against decriminalizing marijuana, saying that while marijuana users rarely see the inside of a jail cell, the decriminalization of marijuana would send the wrong message to the state’s youth. McQueen added that the “hammer” of prosecution gives his officers the leverage they need to get offenders, often younger ones, on the “straight and narrow.”
Nearly two-thirds (63%) of Vermont voters support removing criminal penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana and replacing them with a civil fine, according to a survey conducted by Public Policy Polling in February 2012.
With the dawn of decriminalization in Vermont, the “Live Free or Die” state of New Hampshire remains the only New England state that has not decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana.