Montpelier — The Vermont House gave preliminary approval Friday to a bill that would change the offense of possessing up to an ounce of marijuana from a misdemeanor crime to a civil offense similar to a speeding violation.
On roll call vote of 98-44, the House endorsed the bill, which would impose a fine of as much as $300 for anyone caught with up to an ounce of the drug.
The bill also contains provisions designed to eliminate the possibility of a permanent criminal record or future collateral consequences such as ineligibility for certain jobs or government benefits for those convicted of possessing up to two ounces, or up to four plants.
The legislation now goes to the Senate, which is also expected to pass it.
Supporters of the bill were in two camps: those who wanted to remove the danger of a permanent criminal record that can face young people convicted of possessing small amounts of pot, and those who said they saw the bill as a small step toward their real goal: legalization, regulation and taxation of marijuana.
“I think that if this is the process it takes to get to where I think we should be, which is legalization, regulation and taxation, then that’s the step that I’m willing to take,” said Rep. Tony Klein, D-East Montpelier, who added that he had not consumed alcohol for 28 years or any other recreational drug for longer than that.
But members of the Judiciary Committee, which drafted the bill, said their goal was not legalization.
“It was illegal yesterday, it is illegal today and if this bill is passed by both chambers and signed into law, it will remain illegal,” said Rep. Linda Waite-Simpson, D-Essex and a member of the committee who described the bill to her House colleagues.
Vermont would become the 16th state to have decriminalized, or, in the cases of Washington state and Colorado, to have legalized by popular referendum possession of small amounts of marijuana, said Matt Simon of the Marijuana Policy Project.
The bill will be up for final House action on Tuesday. Gov. Peter Shumlin has said he supports decriminalization of possession of small amounts.
Sen. Richard Sears, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Friday he expects the Senate will pass it by a similar margin as did the House — “it should be 2 to 1 or more.”
But the powerful committee chairman, who could have a lot to say about the bill’s fate, was unwilling to say for sure he would support it.
“The devil is in the details,” Sears said. Among his misgivings: Under the House bill, someone younger than 21 caught with alcohol could face a criminal charge but would not for possession of up to an ounce of marijuana. “That doesn’t make sense to me,” the Bennington County Democrat said.
Not all Republicans opposed the bill during House debate Friday, but most of those speaking out against it were Republicans.
One exception was Rep. Cynthia Browning, D-Arlington, who called marijuana a “powerful psychoactive drug.” She joined other critics in saying the legislation would send a message to Vermont’s young people that the state was not serious about forbidding marijuana.