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article imageVermont 2013: A good year for drug policy reform

By Matthew DeLuca     Jun 19, 2013 in Politics
Now that the 2013 session of the Vermont legislature has been over for almost a month and the last of the bills have been signed into law, one thing has become clear for those Vermonters who smoke marijuana or use drugs--2013 was a good year.
In 2013 Vermont saw the passage of four pieces of landmark drug reform legislation: The Good Samaritan bill, H 65, grants legal immunity to individuals who call 911 in response to a drug overdose experienced by themselves or another person. H 522, An Act Relating to Strengthening Vermont’s Response to Opioid Addiction and Methamphetamine Abuse, which was also signed into law by Governor Shumlin, allows for the expansion of addiction treatment programs and allows for the distribution of naloxone--a drug capable of treating opioid overdose--to individuals at risk of drug overdose. With regards to marijuana, H 200, a bill decriminalizing possession of less than one ounce of marijuana, reduces the penalty for possession of less than one ounce to a civil penalty punishable by a summons and fine. The final bill, S 157, signed by the Governor on June 10, authorizes Vermonters to register to grow hemp despite the continued federal illegality of hemp production. All four bill were passed in the final weeks of the legislative session and were signed into law earlier this month.
The Good Samaritan bill, H 65, introduced by primary author Rep. William J. Lippert, along with 9 other co-sponsors, was signed into law on June 6, 2013. A similar bill was introduced in the Senate by Tim Ashe and Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, Dick Sears, but was tabled and replaced with the House version of the bill. The bill grants criminal immunity for small drug offenses such as simple possession when seeking medical assistance in response to an overdose. The immunity granted only applies to evidence procured as a result of an individual calling 911 to respond to an overdose. Legislators, including the bill’s prime sponsor, Representative Lippert, cited safety concerns as the prime motive behind the bill, hoping that drug users, normally concerned of the legal consequences of involving the authorities, will be more likely to seek medical attention in overdose situations.
The discussion on overdose and harm reduction measures led the House Human Services Committee, chaired by Representative Lippert, to draft, H 522, a multi-faceted overdose prevention bill, which was signed into law on June 5. The provision allowing individuals to possess and administer naloxone to combat opioid overdoses, which many hoped would be rolled into the Good Samaritan bill, was included in H 522 along with numerous other provisions relating to expansion of drug addiction treatment programs in the state. On the other side of the issue, the bill strengthens the Vermont Prescription Monitoring Program. The bill requires that a person present a valid ID to pick up a prescription. These Prescriptions are then logged into the system. The monitoring system warehouses data on controlled substances that can be used to identify irregularities in opioid prescriptions.
H 522 requires even more stringent monitoring of ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, which can often be purchased over-the-counter. The sale and possession of these products is already restricted in Vermont because of their use in the methamphetamine production process. Previously under Vermont Law, individuals were prohibited from purchasing products containing in total more than 3.6 grams of ephedrine or pseudoephedrine base. As amended by the recently passed bill, the law imposes an additional restriction on purchases within a 30-day period, limiting an individual to a total of nine grams of the base drug. The bill requires that establishments check ID and log the transaction in the National Precursor Log Exchange (NPLEx). The dispensing establishment is then required to block the transaction if it would result in the individual surpassing the legal limit, unless there is “reasonable fear of imminent bodily harm” to the person or another person if the transaction is not completed.
H 200, which removes the criminal penalties for possession of less than one ounce of marijuana, was co-sponsored by 39 of the 140 members of the Vermont House of Representatives and was signed by the Governor on June 6. Under the provisions of the bill, the first three offenses for possession of less than one ounce of marijuana by an adult over 21 are civil violations, punishable by a fine of no more than $200 for the first offense, $300 for the second and $500 for the third. Individuals who commit a possession violation are not subject to arrest and may only be detained if they refuse to satisfactorily identify themselves to the responding officer. The bill specifically states, “A violation of this section shall not result in the creation of a criminal history record of any kind.”
The law additionally allows first-time offenders in possession of more than one ounce the opportunity to participate in the Court Diversion Program such as drug rehabilitation. Deferred sentencing may also be extended to second time offenders. In these cases of a suspended sentence and court diversion, charges are dropped upon successful completion of the Court Diversion program.
Youth offenses are also treated as civil violations subject to greater fines, but the offense is also accompanied by a temporary suspension of the individual’s license or provisional privilege to operate a motor vehicle. These youth offenders are required to register in the Youth Substance Abuse Safety Program within the Court Diversion Program within 15 days of receiving the notice of violation or they may face criminal charges.
Under the new law, localities maintain the right to penalize public consumption of marijuana, and laws pertaining to driving under the influence of marijuana are not influenced by the passage of the bill.
The final ‘drug bill’ that passed in Vermont in 2013 was a proposal to allow the Secretary of Agriculture, Food and Markets to issue licenses for Vermont farmers to grow strains of Hemp with less than a 0.3 percent THC concentration. S 157 repeals a provision which states that the Secretary “shall not issue a license to grow industrial hemp pursuant to Chapter 34 of Title 6 until the United States Congress amends the definition of “marihuana” for the purposes of the Controlled Substances Act” and allows the Secretary to begin issuing licenses. Licenses issued by the Secretary will include a notice that until current federal law is changed, cultivation of hemp in Vermont is a violation under the federal Controlled Substances Act and may result in criminal prosecution, which could incur criminal penalties, forfeiture of property and loss of access to federal agricultural benefits.
Although Vermont is one of the more progressive states in the U.S. and legislation similar to the four bills passed in the 2013 session, has been proposed in Vermont in the past and has been successfully implemented in numerous other states, 2013 can still be said to have been a landmark year for drug policy reform. Given the number of drug policy issues, which received a large bulk of the legislative attention this year, not only in Vermont but all over the U.S., it has become apparent that rolling back the war on drugs and mitigating the harms of drug use has transformed into a mainstream legislative priority.
More about Vermont, Drugs, Marijuana, Prescription drugs, opiates
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