Vermont Democratic and Progressive lawmakers filed a new bill this week to decriminalize drug possession—a policy they hope will serve as a harm reduction tool that can also help to address racial disparities in enforcement.
Reps. Logan Nicoll (D) and Selene Colburn (P) introduced the legislation, which would make possession and distribution of low levels of currently illicit drugs punishable by a $50 fine, without the threat of jail time. People could have the fee waived by completing a health screening that would be facilitated through a new treatment referral system.
The bill would amend state statute on drug possession and distribution to make it so people would face the civil penalty if the amount of the drug in question is under a “benchmark personal use” threshold that would be determined by a new Drug Use Standards Advisory Board.
That board would be comprised of “experts in the fields of general and behavioral health care, substance use disorder treatment, and drug user communities,” according to the text of the bill.
The proposal would further remove criminal penalties for sharing small amounts of currently illicit drugs without compensation.
Already, 40 initial cosponsors have signed up to support the proposal—nearly one-third of the Vermont House. Colburn told Marijuana Moment in an interview on Tuesday that she wants to see the legislature engage with this issue in a way that lawmakers in other states have—like nearby Maine, where the House approved a decriminalization bill last year.
The legislator said that she’s been “talking with a lot of frontline folks, a lot of people with lived experience, and the vast majority of those folks will share that justice system involvement has been a hurdle and a barrier in their recovery, or even just their access to life saving medication or to harm reduction tools.”
“We try to be really clear in talking about this bill that that the vast majority of people who are drug users are not people who are struggling with substance use disorder,” Colburn said. “So this is definitely a civil liberties issue as well. But for folks who [do have substance misuse disorders], the the impacts of criminalization have caused, and continue to cause, so much harm.”
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A recent report presented to the Vermont legislature by the Council of State Governments’s Justice Center also underscores the need for reform, the lawmaker said.
It found that black people are more than six times as likely to be incarcerated in Vermont compared to white people. They are also about three-to-four times more likely to be arrested over drug offenses despite comparable rates of use among races. In drug felony cases, black people were about 14 times more likely to be defendants than white people.
Dave Silberman, Addison County’s high bailiff and a pro bono drug reform advocate, told Marijuana Moment that the bill’s introduction with such a significant number of lawmakers signed on signals a shift in how elected officials are approaching drug issues.
“Whether or not this decriminalization bill passes, I think it’s really important that we are having a conversation in the legislature about decriminalization as a harm reduction tool and as a tool for reducing the racial disparities we see in policing and jails in Vermont, which are truly truly horrible,” he said.
“We just need to take a more holistically harm reductionist view of our drug problem in Vermont in order to save lives and keep people alive—and not jail them because the jail thing isn’t working,” Silberman said. “In fact, we see that when people go into jail with opioid use disorder, they come out of jail, they’re far more likely to die of an overdose than if they never went in to begin with.”
Colburn and Nicoll filed similar decriminalization legislation last year, but it did not advance. The hope is that, because there’s been broader, less partisan consensus that criminalizing people over drugs is the wrong approach, legislative leaders will agree to at least hold hearings on the reform proposal in the coming weeks.
Also this year, Colburn will be working to advance a separate bill to authorize overdose prevention sites in the state—a policy that advocates say would provide another critical harm reduction tool. And while she would like to see her broader decriminalization proposal enacted, the lawmaker also noted that there’s significant bipartisan interest in a separate reform measure to defelonize convictions for certain drug offenses by making them misdemeanors instead.
The new decriminalization bill also has the backing of the national Drug Policy Alliance, as well as other advocacy groups like the Vermont ACLU.
“Historically, substance use has been treated as a crime rather than a chronic disease, and Vermont’s laws have employed a traditional punitive criminal justice model that has shown to be a failure at improving public health and reducing criminality that is sometimes associated with substance use,” the findings section of the bill says.
“Pursuing a decriminalization model for personal use amounts of regulated drugs would allow Vermont to redirect money and resources from prosecution and incarceration toward prevention, harm reduction strategies, and treatment affording better outcomes for all Vermonters,” it says.
A separate bill to remove criminal penalties around plant- and fungi-based substances such as psilocybin, mescaline, ibogaine and DMT was also introduced last year by Rep. Brian Cina (P/D) and is still alive for the two-year legislative session.
Outside of Vermont, bills to decriminalize psilocybin mushrooms and more widely reduce penalties for non-violent drug offenses have been pre-filed for the 2022 session in neighboring New Hampshire.
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