By Phillip Smith
Although it has the support of the governor and the public, a Vermont bill to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana is stalled, held hostage by a hostile House speaker, the Barre-Montpelier Times-Argus reported Saturday.
Under the bill, House Bill 427, possession of less than an ounce by people 21 and over would be punishable by no more than a $150 fine. People aged 18-20 would be subject to the fine on a first offense and a drug awareness course or community service on the second offense. Minors would be subject to drug awareness or community service for a first offense and could be fined up to $300 for failure to comply. Current law mandates up to six months in jail and a fine of up to $500 for simple possession.
Speaker of the House Shap Smith is blocking the bill. Tom Cheney, an aide of Smith's, told the Times-Argus the bill will not make it to a floor vote this session. Cheney said Smith had concerns that some in the state’s law enforcement community may not support the legislation.
That wouldn't include Commissioner of Public Safety Keith Flynn, who has said he supports decriminalization and that the state should make better use of its law enforcement resources. That also wouldn't include Gov. Peter Shumlin (D), who has said he supports decriminalization because it would free up law enforcement resources.
Flynn and Shumlin are joined by a majority of the state's voters in supporting decriminalization according to a poll last week. Commissioned by the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), which is pushing the legislation, the Public Policy Polling survey found that 63% supported decriminalization as envisioned in HB 427, with only 29% opposed. The poll also found that 52% said if their legislator voted for decriminalization, they would be more likely to vote for him or her, while only 25% would be less likely.
"It's time for legislative leadership to bring this sensible proposal to a vote, so that Vermont can focus its limited criminal justice resources on crime with actual victims," said Karen O'Keefe, MPP director of state policies.
Somebody needs to get the Speaker of the House on the same page as his colleagues, his governor, and the people of Vermont.