MONTPELIER - A top State Police official joined a deputy health commissioner and head of the state sheriffs' association yesterday in urging senators not to pass a bill that would remove the potential for jail time for possessing small amounts of marijuana.
Despite their pleas, Richard Sears, a Democrat from Bennington and the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said after yesterday's hearing that he expected to learn next week whether the committee wants to approve a bill that would remove the 6-month misdemeanor jail term now in law for possession of 2 ounces or less.
Sears said he hoped to amend the bill before the committee so that someone charged with possession of less than 2 ounces would have a choice of two outcomes: entrance into a court diversion program, perhaps including drug treatment and community service, which would result in no criminal record, or payment of a fine, which would be simpler but would result in a record.
He and other committee members said they planned to drop provisions that would lighten penalties for the sale of small amounts of the illicit plant.
In the face of calls from some quarters for decriminalizing marijuana and making possession of small amounts subject to a civil penalty like a traffic ticket, Sears said his hope was to "keep it criminal but take away the jail time that is associated with it."
Major Thomas L'Esperance of the State Police, commander of the force's criminal division, said that a leading backer of changing Vermont's marijuana law, Windsor County States Attorney Robert Sand, had cited youth surveys indicating 55 percent of high school students had tried the drug.
"What about the 45 percent who have not tried it?" asked L'Esperance. "Because it's a crime, this might be a stick kids use to not get involved. . . . Why would we take that away from those 45 percent?"
Barbara Cimaglio, deputy commissioner of health for alcohol and drug programs, also opposed relaxing Vermont's marijuana law, saying to do so would "send a message that we don't think this is a big deal."
In contrast to earlier hearings, just one person spoke yesterday in favor of changing the law. Fred Woogmaster of Plainfield said he is nearly 70 years old, had smoked marijuana "off and on" since 1960, and that it had done him no harm.