By Phillip Smith
As of Monday, Vermont will be the 17th state to decriminalize marijuana possession. A bill passed earlier this year goes into effect then.
The measure, House Bill 200, was sponsored by Rep. Christopher Pearson (P-Burlington), with a tripartisan group of 38 cosponsors. 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 cultivation of any number of plants.
People under 21 caught with decriminalized amounts of marijuana or hash will have to undergo substance abuse screening.
"This is a much-needed step forward toward a more sensible marijuana policy," said Matt Simon, legislative analyst for the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), 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 passed with the support of State Attorney General William Sorrell and Public Safety Commissioner Keith Flynn, both of whom testified in support of it. Gov. Peter Shumlin (D) signed it into law June 6.
The advent of decriminalization in Vermont leaves New Hampshire as the only New England that has failed to do so. In the region, marijuana possession is decriminalized in Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New York, and Rhode Island.
Now that the state has embraced decriminalization, it's on to the next phase, said MPP's Simon.
"There is still work to be done and support is growing for more comprehensive marijuana policy reform," he said. "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," Simon said.