The Vermont Legislature is one step closer to decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana.
On Tuesday, the Vermont Senate gave preliminary approval to legislation that would make it a civil offense rather than a crime to possess one ounce or less of pot. The vote was 24-6.
The Senate version slightly amends the bill that overwhelmingly passed in the House last month, adding a new system for penalties for people under 21.
In the House and the Senate, supporters have made it clear that this bill would not legalize possession of marijuana in Vermont.
With the Senate plan, Judiciary Chairman Dick Sears says he wanted to stress that point so his committee proposed penalties that would be graduated for first, second and third offenses.
“I think that sends a message,” Sears explained shortly before the Senate vote. “For those under the age of 21, what we’ve done is we’ve put in a system where the first offense you can go through diversion. If you’re successful then that doesn’t exist. Second offense would give you another shot at diversion.”
The third offense would become criminal.
Sears and other supporters of the Senate version said it sends a stronger message to young people by making the penalties the same for both alcohol and marijuana.
Still, opponents worry the bill would strip police of their right to search, said Franklin Senator Norm McCallister.
“This would stop them from having probable cause and it would stop that investigation so you could have trunk full of heroin as long as you’ve got a couple ounces of pot in the front you say, ‘I’ll take my fine,' and you’re on your way,’” McCallister told his colleagues on the Senate floor Tuesday.
Under the Senate bill, like the version cleared in the House, no one could possess more than an ounce of pot or cultivate marijuana plants.
If a person over 21 possesses less than an ounce, they’d get a ticket similar to a speeding ticket and they could face a $300 civil fine for a first or second offense and a 90-day suspension of their license.