Legislative Report 4/25/2013 - Decriminalizing Marijuana

It’s a weed and goes by that name.  Its scientific name is Cannabis but is more commonly known as marijuana. Last year 2 states, Oregon and Colorado, legalized marijuana.  Vermont and several other states have legalized its use for medicinal purposes.  However, federal law still prohibits its use for any purpose.  Marijuana policy is always controversial with advocates for and against legalization, and trying to find a reasonable approach to controlling a substance that is prevalent despite its prohibition is a challenge. 

Last week the Vermont House passed H.200 decriminalizing possession of less than one ounce of marijuana.  However, possession of marijuana in any amount without a doctor’s written statement of need for a recognized illness is still illegal in Vermont.  The bill is now under consideration by the Vermont Senate.  It is important to understand exactly what H.200 does as well as the rationale for its purpose.

Teenagers will often push the limits of their freedom and sometimes make bad decisions. Parents often don’t know that their teen is smoking, drinking or using marijuana until their child gets in trouble. The important thing is to find a way to intervene and get them back on the right path. A teenager who gets caught in Vermont with marijuana can face consequences which can have lasting negative effects on their future. 

Under present law anyone caught in possession of marijuana regardless of the amount is subject to criminal prosecution.  The charges are felony possession of a controlled substance.  A person convicted of this violation is subject to prison time as well as a fine, although a judge may assign the offender to a court diversion program if it is a first offense.  Penalties increase for subsequent instances of possession and as the amount possessed increases.  Additional consequences include ineligibility for federal college loans and college tuition tax credits.  Ironically, because of these serious consequences and the stricter requirements for prosecution, arresting officers who catch a teenager smoking marijuana will sometimes just confiscate the substance, warn the individual, and let them go.  This treatment is unlikely to change the attitude of the teen.

H.200 retains the current penalties for amounts greater than one ounce.  Furthermore, a person over 21 years of age caught smoking marijuana on a school bus transporting minors or within 100 feet of a school building is subject to charges of felony possession.

Possession of less than one ounce of marijuana becomes a civil violation under H.200, similar to a motor vehicle violation.  This means that it is subject to a fine, but it does not carry a criminal charge.  In addition to a $300 fine, the individual will have their driver’s license suspended for a period of time and be required to participate in the court diversion program.  Since there will be no excuse for not charging a teenager with possession if criminal charges are not involved,  more consistent enforcement of the civil penalty will increase the chances for intervention.  The necessity of coming up with $300 and attending court diversion is more likely to bring this bad decision to the parents’ attention and provide a much needed opportunity for a life-changing conversation.
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