Prosecutor, police chief disagree over decriminalizing marijuana

01/30/08 5:50PM By John Dillon
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(Host) A state prosecutor and a police chief disagreed today over the issue of decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana.

VPR's John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) Windsor County State's Attorney Bobby Sand asked lawmakers to keep one basic question in mind as they consider the decriminalization bill:

(Sand) Are we comfortable calling someone a criminal simply because they use a small amount of marijuana?

(Dillon) If the answer is yes, Sand says, there's no need for a legislative debate on marijuana decriminalization. But he says most Vermonters are not comfortable with making pot-smokers criminals. He says the law should be changed to reflect that reality.

According to Sand, marijuana cases consume valuable police time, including making arrests, booking the suspect and writing up criminal complaints.

(Sand) So I think we need to find a way to let police respond to marijuana cases but let them do it in a way that they can stay out in the streets, out on the roadways, out protecting. And that means finding a way for a street-based response.

(Dillon) Sand has become a well known advocate for reforming the state's drug laws. He told the Senate Judiciary Committee that he advocates a four-tiered approach to marijuana prosecution. For possession of an ounce or less, he says there should be no arrest or law enforcement response. Police would simply confiscate and destroy the drug.

For possession of an ounce to two ounces, a person would get a ticket. Two to four ounces would be handled as a misdemeanor, while anything over that would be prosecuted as a felony.

But Sand would strengthen penalties in one area. He says drivers that test positive for marijuana should be prosecuted under DUI laws.

(Sand) There should be no tolerance for using a substance that puts other people in harm's way.

(Dillon) Winooski Police Chief Steve McQueen urged the committee not to change the current law. He says marijuana is a major money-maker for drug dealers, and decriminalization could bolster the illegal market.

(McQueen) Any change in how the state approaches the possession and the use of only goes to reinforce the illicit drug market, because you're decriminalizing and making it a civil offense. ..

(Dillon) The bill in its current form would decriminalize possession of up to four ounces.

McQueen strongly advised against setting the limit at that level. He says four ounces is worth at least a thousand dollars on the street.

(McQueen) So keep in mind where this is coming from and the criminal enterprise that is behind a lot of this. It's not as benign as you might think. It's not as benign as alcohol or tobacco because those are legal.

(Dillon) Committee Chairman Dick Sears says he doesn't support the four ounce limit. He says he could support decriminalizing one ounce of marijuana possession.

For VPR News, I'm John Dillon in Montpelier.

 

AP Photo/Toby Talbot: State's Attorney Robert Sand at a public hearing on marijuana earlier this year.

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