Gov. Peter Shumlin has signed into law a bill making Vermont the 17th state in the U.S. to either decriminalize or legalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana.
The law, effective July 1, replaces criminal penalties for as much as an ounce of marijuana or five grams of hashish with civil fines similar to those associated with traffic tickets, Reuters reported.
“I applaud the Legislature’s action to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana. Vermonters support sensible drug policies. This legislation allows our courts and law enforcement to focus their limited resources more effectively to fight highly addictive opiates such as heroin and prescription drugs that are tearing apart families and communities,” Shumlin said in a statement after legislative passage of the marijuana decriminalization bill last month.
The new law stipulates that first-time offenders under the age of 21 caught with marijuana be required to attend a court diversion program, which includes screening for substance abuse.
Under the current law in Vermont, possession of as much as two ounces of marijuana is punishable by up to six months in jail for a first offense and up to two years in jail for later offenses.
“We commend Gov. Shumlin, the state’s top law-enforcement officials, and the Legislature for their leadership and support of this important legislation,” Matt Simon, an analyst for the Marijuana Policy Project, said in a press release published by VTDigger. “The governor’s signature marks another major milestone in the evolution of marijuana policy in Vermont.
“Removing criminal penalties for marijuana possession slows the bleeding, but it will not stop until marijuana prohibition is replaced with a more sensible policy,” Simon continued. “Marijuana is objectively less harmful than alcohol and it is time for the state to start exploring policies that treat it that way.”
As the Los Angeles Times pointed out, Vermont joins a growing list of states, including California, Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, Nebraska, New York, Oregon and Rhode Island, that treat nonmedical marijuana possession as a civil, noncriminal offense.
In November 2012, voters in Colorado and Washington approved amendments legalizing recreational marijuana for adults over the age of 21.