A recent survey of Vermonters shows broad support of decriminalization of marijuana, but legislation is stalled in the House that would reduce the possession of small quantities of marijuana to a civil offense.
According to a Public Policy Polling survey of nearly 1,100 Vermonters released this week, a majority of Vermont voters is in favor of removing criminal penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana. Under Vermont law, the penalty for possession of marijuana is up to six months in jail and up to a $500 fine.
The poll was commissioned by the Washington, D.C.-based Marijuana Policy Project, which works to reduce or eliminate penalties for marijuana use.
Tom Cheney, aide to Speaker of the House Shap Smith, said a bill pertaining to the penalties for marijuana possession – H.427 – is in the Judiciary Committee and will not make its way to the floor this session.
Cheney said Smith has concerns that some in the state’s law enforcement community may not support the legislation.
In previous statements about the legislation, Commissioner of Public Safety Keith Flynn has said he supported decriminalization and that the state should be directing its resources to more acute public-safety threats.
Gov. Peter Shumlin has said he would support replacing criminal sanctions for possession of marijuana with civil fines. Shumlin said he believes decriminalizing marijuana would free up law enforcement resources to focus more on other drug-related crimes.
H.427, which closely mirrors the reform described to respondents in the poll, was introduced last year and was co-sponsored by Burlington Democrat Jason Lorber and Burlington Progressive Christopher Pearson.
Lorber said the current criminal structure of dealing with possession of marijuana is not effective and that according to the Legislature’s Joint Fiscal Office, the criminal justice system spent about $716,000 on 801 misdemeanor marijuana charges in 2008.
“Our resources could be better realized, working on opiate and prescription drug-related crimes,” said Lorber. “I would like to see the resources going to these critical issues.”
“Vermonters know it is better to provide education than prosecute criminal marijuana cases,” Lorber added.
According to the automated telephone survey, which was conducted Feb. 11 and 12, 63 percent of those polled supported replacing criminal penalties for possession of an ounce or less of marijuana with a civil infraction and a fine of up to $150, with no threat of arrest or jail. The margin of error for the poll was plus or minus 2.97 percentage points.
The poll also asked about the perceived danger of marijuana use compared with alcohol. Of those polled, 74 percent responded that marijuana is as safe as or safer than alcohol.
Respondents were also asked their age: Thirty-eight percent said they were 50 to 64; 28 percent said they were between 35 and 49.
“I’m encouraged by continuing support for this approach,” said Lorber. “The survey shows Vermonters continue to be behind this issue.”
Karen O’Keefe, director of state policies for the Marijuana Policy Project, said the poll made Vermonters’ preferences clear. “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,” she said.