Thursday, June 10, 2010

Democrats debate pot policies

SPRINGFIELD — Senate President Pro Tempore Peter Shumlin on Tuesday
said Vermont should decriminalize marijuana to help free up prison space
and money better devoted to education and other social needs.

"We need to have an honest conversation with Vermonters about changing
laws that are diverting resources and attention from real problems, and
filling our prisons up with folks that shouldn't be there," Shumlin said
in a forum last night with the other four Democratic candidates running
for governor.

"I believe it's a mistake to be sending young people on second, third,
fourth offenses to prison on marijuana-related charges," said Shumlin, a
Putney Democrat who has previously sponsored a decriminalization bill.
"That's where we could make a difference."

None of the other four candidates explicitly called for the
decriminalization of marijuana, which has been opposed by outgoing
Republican Gov. James Douglas, but others touched on the issue.

Former state Sen. Matt Dunne, a Hartland Democrat, said policymakers
need to "connect the dots and right-size the way we punish people" and
said an occasional Border Patrol checkpoint on Interstate 91 in Hartford
was burdening local courts by "going after individuals who have small
amounts of marijuana … it's crazy."

A third candidate, Secretary of State Deborah Markowitz, D-Montpelier,
said Vermont needs to rethink how it punishes people for petty crimes, a
theme touched on by other candidates, as well.

"We need to think differently about how we are dealing with crimes
related to a drug habit," she said.

The forum at Springfield High School was attended by more than 110
Windsor County residents and also touched on single-payer health care,
job creation and wind energy.

"What the state of Vermont is suffering from is a lack of a plan" on
energy, said Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Susan Bartlett, D-Hyde
Park. She also said the state should not raise taxes next year to curb a
looming deficit until more savings are found, but said a $55 million
rainy day fund will have to be tapped to balance the budget.

State Sen. Doug Racine, D-Richmond, along with the other Democrats,
criticized a Republican proposal, since scrapped, that threatened to
merge regional economic development and planning councils.

"The administration didn't understand what was going on in the counties.
The state doesn't have one economy. It's a collection of individual,
local economies," Racine said.

Racine, a former lieutenant governor, also touted the endorsement from
the Vermont-NEA and the Vermont AFL-CIO, two labor unions that together
represent about 20,000 Vermonters.

"It was a real boost to my campaign," Racine said.

After the debate, Windsor County State's Attorney Robert Sand, who was
in the audience and has long favored a proposal to regulate and tax
marijuana, credited Shumlin for taking on the issue of decriminalization

"Other people talked generally about emphasizing treatment. Peter was
the only one who had a significant proposal about changing marijuana
laws," said Sand, who has yet to publicly endorse a candidate. "I was
happy to hear that. I hope that discussion continues."

Shumlin did get slightly edgy in his remarks, making light of the
homophone "doobie," common slang for a joint of marijuana, and the last
name of Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie, the likely Republican gubernatorial

After the debate, Weathersfield resident Chris Harris, a former
Democratic town chairman, said he hasn't written any of the candidates
off and has yet to make up his mind.

"It's remarkable that Vermont has this number of excellent candidates,
and it's going to be tough to choose. I don't know that I'll do it
before I get into the voting booth," Harris said.

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