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Senate Amendment Would Set Back Marijuana Decriminalization

The push to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana has hit a snag in the state Senate.

A bill passed by the House earlier this month that would make it a civil offense – instead of a crime – to possess one ounce or less of pot could get a makeover in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

On Wednesday, the committee considered several changes to the marijuana policy, including one amendment that would treat  a minor who possesses alcohol and one who possesses marijuana in a similar way.

Judiciary Chairman Dick Sears, D-Bennington, is urging his committee to vote for the amendment. “The important thing here is that we don’t have incongruities in the two laws regarding two substances,” Sears said. “For me, the most significant issue is how you deal with 16- and 17-year-olds and those that are under 16. If you don’t deal with that issue, it’s not a bill I can vote for.”

Sears says after a third offense, state's attorneys should prosecute possession of marijuana as a criminal offense. “Under the House bill it would be a civil offense even if it’s 20 times,” he argued. “I think that’s unwise public policy.”

But the bill’s sponsor says the measure addresses multiple offenses with treatment and education. Rep. Chris Pearson, P-Burlington, says the bill would require teenagers caught with small amounts of marijuana to go to diversion or pay a fine, like a speeding ticket.

“If you’re going to sidestep that repeatedly, then maybe it should elevate to a crime,” Pearson said. “But I think that’s going to be in the very rare instance, so to me it’s not a big sticking point.”

“People possessing marijuana shouldn’t be treated as criminals,” he said.

The Shumlin administration has long supported the decriminalization bill, and Public Safety Commissioner Keith Flynn recognizes the concern about the gap in state law between alcohol and marijuana. “We certainly don’t want the impression that the possession bill is going to result in a less severe penalty or a less severe treatment than the alcohol,” Flynn said.

The administration would support a provision that requires prosecutors to make possession of marijuana a criminal violation after a third offense, he said.

The Senate Judiciary Committee is expected to vote on the amendment and the underlying bill early next week.

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