House advances drug reform bill, but what exactly would it change? –

Mar 21 2022, 1:22 PMMarch 21, 2022
The House has advanced a measure that would shrink maximum sentences for drug crimes and establish a board to review existing laws on drug possession.
“The bill also seeks to make progress toward addressing Vermont’s drug problem through harm reduction and a public health approach, rather than through the criminal justice system,” Rep. Martin LaLonde, D-South Burlington, said on the House floor. 
Yet, judges for the most part have already been issuing sentences in line with H.505’s suggestions, LaLonde said. The bill that was approved Friday simply codifies existing practice.
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That raises the question: Will H.505 actually change how Vermont courts deal with drug crimes?
H.505 would create geographic justice in sentencing, LaLonde said, ensuring residents of certain counties do not experience uniquely harsh punishment. 
While the bill reclassifies some felonies as misdemeanors — such as low-quantity heroin possession — it may help combat racial bias in drug arrests and sentencing. 
“In Vermont, Black people were over 14 times more likely than white people to be defendants in a felony drug case,” LaLonde said.
The bill would also alter current law to treat powdered cocaine and crack cocaine the same — a difference that, according to LaLonde, has in the past been used disproportionately to target African Americans.
Not everyone supported the legislation, such as Rep. Paul Lefebvre, I-Newark, who took issue with the fact that people under 21 who are sold marijuana are treated differently from those of any other age. 
“Recently we gave 16- and 17-year-olds in at least one town the right to vote. But here we are seeming to discriminate against anyone who is 20, 19, 18 — all people of age,” he said.
Vermont law allows adults 21 and over to possess up to an ounce of marijuana. H.505 does not change current law regarding those under 21. 
H.505 would also establish a Drug Use Standards Advisory Board — an idea first proposed in H.644, a more far-reaching bill that sought to decriminalize small, possession-level quantities of most drugs. 
The Drug Use Standard Advisory Board would be composed of experts in harm reduction, substance use disorder, treatment and drug law, plus three consumer representatives “who have lived experience in drug use and consumption practices.” The board would determine a benchmark for a personal-use supply of each decriminalized drug and could make recommendations to legislators on how to adapt drug policy. 
According to testimony from Kassandra Frederique, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, the board would be novel for the input it allows from harm reduction specialists and people who currently or previously used drugs.
LaLonde said the House Judiciary Committee — of which he’s a member — decided to advance H.505 rather than the more sweeping H.644 and H.309 largely due to feasibility. 
“This is what we felt most confident that we could get through the whole process, including through the House, the Senate and signature by the governor,” he said of H.505. 
Though reclassification of drug crimes might seem “boring,” LaLonde said, it nonetheless “helps push us toward more of a harm-reduction, public-health approach to dealing with drugs.”
The Drug Use Standard Advisory Board would also advance that mission, according to LaLonde, by delineating as accurately as possible the difference between people who use drugs and drug dealers.
“We’re trying to reduce the punitive outcomes for individuals who are just using drugs. You know, that’s different than sales and trafficking,” he said. “We need to get the folks to treatment, if that’s what they need.”
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Ethan Weinstein is a general assignment reporter focusing on Windsor County and the surrounding area. Previously, he worked as an assistant editor for the Mountain Times and wrote for the Vermont Standard.
Email: [email protected]
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