By Yaël Ossowski | Watchdog.org
In July of this year, Vermont lawmakers took a bold step.
They removed criminal penalties for those caught with small amounts of marijuana.
Now, 5 months later, decriminalization of pot is generally judged to be a great success in the Green Mountain State, a sentiment which could push Vermont to be the third state in the union to legalize marijuana outright.
“It’s clear that the sky hasn’t fallen since marijuana possession became a fine-only offense in Vermont,” said Matt Simon, legislative analyst at the Marijuana Policy Project, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit dedicated to reforming marijuana prohibition.
“So far the effects appear to have been entirely positive. Rather than arresting individuals who possess small amounts of marijuana, police are now simply writing them tickets,” he told Vermont Watchdog.
Simon was a powerful force in the push to soften the state’s marijuana laws, landing him a spot alongside Gov. Peter Shumlin at the bill’s signing ceremony in June.
Now he sees a great wave of change to come for public safety, state finances and the criminal justice system itself.
“The most beneficial change may be the simple fact that police and courts are now spending less time dealing with minor marijuana offenses, which obviously leaves them with more time to focus on violent crime, property crime and other legitimate public safety concerns,” he told Vermont Watchdog.
He’s joined in his optimism by Shumlin, who told WCAX TV in September that positive results could bode well for those who wish to put an end to the 40-year War on Drugs.
“I think in Vermont we are smart to be evolving with the rest of the country on this, and I applaud the DOJ for being more clear about how they’re going to enforce legalization issues of small amounts of marijuana,” Shumlin said.
In the first month of the relaxed laws, about 29 civil citations were given out, according to the Vermont Judicial Bureau.
They did not return calls to Vermont Watchdog seeking updates on the numbers.
A cooler attitude toward marijuana is a tough position for many government agencies, especially considering their active role in battling drug use.
As recently as 2008, Vermont’s Department of Health published a fact sheet warning about the effect of marijuana, invoking the oft-rebutted claim that it’s a “gateway drug” or that smoking the plant will lead to “chronic memory loss.”
A call to Vermont’s Department of Health was not returned.
At least on the executive and judicial branches of state government, proponents of laxer laws on marijuana seem to have key allies.
“Even with our best efforts, we are losing ground,” said Vermont Chief Justice Paul Reiber during a speech at Vermont Law School in November, as quoted by Seven Days, an independent Vermont newspaper. “The classic approach of ‘tough on crime’ is not working in this area of drug policy… The criminal justice system can’t solve the drug problem.”
That will leave a consensus on changing the government’s attitude toward pot in the months to come, a move celebrated by the Marijuana Policy Project.
“We strongly believe Vermont should take the next step and begin regulating and taxing marijuana similarly to alcohol,” Simon said. “This would take marijuana out of the illicit market, where it has become a major source of revenue for criminal enterprises, and Vermont would instead have marijuana being produced and sold by law-abiding, taxpaying businesses.
“Prohibition has failed, and we think it’s time for Vermonters to consider a new approach,” Simon told Vermont Watchdog.