The Vermont House on Friday gave preliminary approval to a bill that would automatically expunge thousands of low-level marijuana convictions and allow people to possess and grow twice as much of the drug without being charged with a crime.
The two cannabis-related measures were included in a miscellaneous judiciary bill that passed the chamber by an overwhelming margin. Final action is expected next week before it then heads to the Senate, where lawmakers passed a similar decriminalization bill in May and have expressed support for the expungement concept.
"We have approximately 10,000 Vermonters who continue to struggle to live, work, find a house, raise their families and be productive members of society with that cloud of a past nonviolent low-level marijuana conviction hanging over their heads," Rep. Tom Burditt (R-Rutland) said prior to Friday's virtual House vote, which was 113 to 10.
The bill is "also a critical component of the movement towards racial justice in cannabis policy," he added, referencing how marijuana charges have disproportionately impacted people of color throughout the United States for decades.
The bill would automatically clear the criminal records of anyone who was convicted of possessing up to two ounces of marijuana, four mature plants and eight immature plants prior to January 2021.
Starting then, people who fall into that category would then be allowed to deny having ever had a cannabis conviction on their record when filling out job, license or civil rights applications — even if they have not yet received confirmation from the state.
Vermont courts would have until the end of next year to clear the records, and those who receive expungements would be notified by mail.
Because Vermont's incremental approach to decriminalization has made it difficult to tell how much someone possessed at the time of their conviction, lawmakers said they must also tweak the state's decriminalization laws to make the expungement process easier.
"There's no way to tell if the conviction was for one joint, or just under two ounces by looking at the charges and convictions," Burditt said. "You'd have to go into each case file, often paper records in various agencies around the state, to locate the information and affidavit that alleges the amount possessed. That process is cumbersome, timely and costly."
The bill would decriminalize the possession of between one and two ounces of marijuana so that instead of a misdemeanor crime, it would instead result in a civil fine: $100 for the first offense, $200 for the second and $500 for every additional one.
The bill would also decriminalize the possession of three mature plants and six immature ones. Currently, the law allows for the possession of two and four such plants, respectively.