Lawmakers agreed on Monday to decriminalize the possession of small amounts marijuana.
The move comes just months after Colorado and Washington State took the issue a step further and legalized pot.
Right now, possession of up to two ounces of marijuana in Vermont is a misdemeanor that can result in six months in jail for a first offense – two years for subsequent offenses.
But that’s about to change. The bill would make it a civil offense rather than a crime to possess one ounce or less of pot in Vermont.
Those caught carrying marijuana would receive a $300 to $500 civil fine, similar to a traffic ticket.
And people under 21 would be required to go through a diversion program for first and second offenses. A third offense would become criminal.
Rep. Bill Lippert, D-Hinesburg, is chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. He says the measure is long overdue.
“Many state’s attorneys are already using a referral to diversion,” Lippert explained. “We believe if we already do this then let’s put it into law.”
The debate has split Vermont’s law enforcement community. Opponents, including Winooski Police Chief Steve McQueen, say decriminalizing possession of marijuana sends the wrong message to teenagers.
“This is not legalization,” McQueen said. “It is still always going to be illegal, both federally and under state law to possess marijuana.”
Gov. Peter Shumlin, though, says he will sign the bill, which enjoys broad tri-partisan support in Montpelier.
Shumlin says the legislation should allow Vermont courts and law enforcement to focus their resources to fight highly-addictive opiates such as heroin and prescription drugs.
If enacted, Vermont would become the seventeenth state to remove criminal penalties for possessing marijuana.
Meanwhile, the legislature gave final approval to a bill that would permit farmers to grow hemp. Like the marijuana bill, it conflicts with federal law.
The hemp bill sailed through the House and Senate, with wide spread support from farmers.