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April 20, 2012

House Speaker Agrees to Move Marijuana Decrim Bill ...Next Year

LorberHappy 4/20, dudes!

Just in time for the pot smokers' high holiday comes this toke-tastic news from the statehouse in Montpelier.

A bill to decriminalize possession of less than an ounce of marijuana — which was blocked this year by House Speaker Shap Smith (D-Buzzkill) — will finally get a hearing.

Next year.

Smith blocked marijuana decriminalization from consideration in the House this year, prompting anoymous pot advocates to harass him and his family online. A Senate version could still pass before a May 4 adjournment, but the Senate sponsors are doubtful about its prospects.

On Friday, Tom Cheney, Smith's aide, told Seven Days that the speaker has brokered a deal with the House bill's tri-parisan sponsors, Reps. Jason Lorber (D-Burlington, pictured at a statehouse cookout held today), Chris Pearson (P-Burlington) and Adam Howard (R-Cambridge). The agreement means the legislation will move next year.

The deal apparently has two parts. First, Vermont Public Safety Commissioner Keith Flynn will head up a study this summer examining the costs and benefits of decrininalizing marijuana in the states where possession is now a civil penalty rather than a crime — such as New York, Massachusetts, Maine and Connecticut, to name a few.

Second, the House Judiciary Committee will take testimony on the bill in 2013.

That might not seem like much of a victory for decrim supporters — especially since the deal depends upon its architects winning re-election this November. But Lorber, the bill's lead sponsor, views it as a significant step forward.

"This was not the desired outcome, but we'll get there," Lorber said. "This path is not unusual. We had a similar approach when we did marriage [equality]. There was a summer study, and that laid the groundwork. The issues are very different, but there's precedent."

Cheney said the speaker "never wanted to hold up the bill; he wanted more information and he hopes the [study] will be informative to the committee." That would be the House Judiciary Committee, chaired by Rep. Bill Lippert (D-Hinesburg), who declined to comment on the deal Friday because, for one thing, he hadn't had a chance to inform his committee members about it yet.

Lober was clearly feeling optimistic about the pledge.

"All our ducks are lined up for passage on this," he said in the statehouse cafeteria Friday afternoon.

Lober said the idea of decriminalizing possession of less than an ounce of marijuana is popular with Vermonters — legalizing (not decrimalizing) pot won majority support in this year's Doyle poll. And he argued that prosecuting people for possesion of small amounts of marijuana wastes scarce judicial resources — upwards of $700,000 a year, according to a report by the legislature's Joint Fiscal Office.

"We have limited dollars and we should be focusing on the most serious drugs, and marijuana doesn't even make the list," Lorber said, before adding, "Or it's near the bottom of it."

BaruthOn the lawn outside the statehouse, enjoying a springtime barbecue, Senate sponsors of a decrim bill were feeling decidely less optimistic. Sen. Philip Baruth (D-Chittenden) was dressed down on the Senate floor Friday morning by Sen. Dick Sears (D-Bennington) over comments Baruth made on a blog post about decriminalization, and alleged double-dealing by Sears.

Baruth (pictured at left in photo) said he was assured that his decriminalization legislation would be attached to a bill he supports, but instead it was tacked on to a bill that he adamantly opposes: one authorizing law enforcement to monitor prescription databases for drug-related criminal activity. 

Eating a hamburger on the statehouse steps, Baruth likened the situation to "having the filet mignon you wanted, but only if you take the poison pill that comes with it." He said that's something he cannot do.

Baruth's partner in crime — er, de-crime — on the marijuana legislation is Sen. Joe Benning (R-Calendonia), a trial attorney. He said passing marijuana decrim this year would be a "pyrrhic victory" because the legislation is doomed in the House. "And I'm not into pyrrhic victories right now," Benning said. 

Perhaps by 4/20/13, they'll be singing a different tune that goes, "Decriminalize It! Don't criticize it!"

Photo credits: Andy Bromage

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