MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) – A top state police official joined a deputy health commissioner and head of the state sheriffs’ association Friday in urging senators against passing a bill that would remove the potential for jail time for possessing small amounts of marijuana.

Despite their pleas, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Richard Sears, D-Bennington, said after Friday’s hearing that he expected to see next week if the committee wants to approve a bill that would remove the six-month misdemeanor jail term now in law for possession of up to 2 ounces of marijuana.

Sears said he hoped to amend the bill currently 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 from the bill provisions that would lighten penalties not just for possession, but for 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.”

That comment in an interview came after the committee took testimony from public officials with a dim view of any of the changes that have been contemplated.

Vermont State Police Maj. Thomas L’Esperance, commander of the force’s criminal division, noted that a leading backer of reforming 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?” L’Esperance asked. “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?” He said the aim should be “to continue to make that first decision (to use marijuana) as difficult as possible.”

Barbara Cimaglio, deputy commissioner of health for alcohol and drug programs, also urged against relaxing Vermont’s marijuana law, saying to do so would “send a message that we don’t think this is a big deal.” She called marijuana a “serious public health issue,” saying that its smoke contains some of the same carcinogens contained in tobacco smoke.

Lamoille County Sheriff Roger Marcoux, president of the Vermont Sheriffs’ Association, argued that law enforcement needs to keep up an ongoing effort against illicit drugs. “In this country we’ve lost the war on drugs but we still have to fight the battle,” he said.

In contrast to earlier hearings on the issue, just one person spoke up Friday in favor of changing the law. Fred Woogmaster of Plainfield said he was nearly 70 years old, had smoked marijuana “off and on” since 1960 and that it had done him no harm.

Woogmaster, the former head of a small school, said he had worked with young people his entire career, and found it difficult to explain to them the “blatant hypocrisy between the laws for alcohol and tobacco and the laws for marijuana.”

Defender General Matt Valerio told the committee he did not expect the changes being contemplated to have much of an impact. He argued that people who want marijuana will get it and smoke it, adding that legislators’ efforts “won’t make any difference.”

AP-ES-02-01-08 1735EST

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