For a few fleeting hours last week, marijuana decriminalization was the toke of the town in Montpelier.
But like a spliff in an overcrowded dorm room, a push in the state Senate to lessen the penalties for pot possession quickly went up in smoke. And the reason why is a mystery. The senators who brought “decrim” to the floor say they were given the green light by Senate leadership to proceed — and were surprised that their motion was snuffed out.
It all started when two senators — Philip Baruth (D-Chittenden) and Joe Benning (R-Caledonia) — sought to amend a bill with language that would make possession of less than one ounce of pot a civil penalty comparable to a speeding ticket. Benning suggested $100 as a fine.
Benning, a trial attorney, recounted a story on the Senate floor about being arrested as a teenager when New Jersey cops busted his band practice and found a buddy’s hash pipe — and how that nearly screwed up his legal career. Benning’s point was that prosecuting people for small amounts of weed not only wastes time and money, it creates a criminal record that can stay with people for their rest of their lives.
“My intent is not to have people running out to smoke a joint,” said Benning, adding that he didn’t toke as a teen and still doesn’t today. “My intent is to begin the conversation to have an intelligent discussion on the war on drugs.”
Benning and Baruth did start a conversation — but it didn’t last very long. Their amendment was trumped by a “substitute amendment” offered by Sen. Dick Sears (D-Bennington) that would have kept pot possession a crime but removed jail as a potential penalty. Instead, violators would be fined $500 for the first offense and $750 for a second offense.
Before either proposal could be voted on, Sen. Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden) made a “motion to lie” — essentially a hold button that tables a piece of legislation indefinitely — after saying the issue needed more study.
Talk about a buzzkill.
In the press coverage that followed, some senators blasted Baruth and Benning for circumventing the committee process to bring the legislation directly to the floor. Sen. Dick Mazza (D-Colchester/Grand Isle) told the Barre-Montpelier Times Argus that bringing up such big legislation at two o’clock on a Friday was “bad timing.” Ashe told the paper, “It’s outrageous to bring it up without any notice to members of the Senate.”
But Benning and Baruth say Senate leaders were fully aware the amendment was coming. Benning says that Sears actually suggested the bill that could be amended with decriminalization language. Benning says he provided a draft of it several days before the vote to Ashley Grant, aide to Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell.
“I interpreted [Sears’ invitation] as getting a green light to go for decriminalization,” Benning says. “I don’t know if Dick was actually thinking the same thing, but that’s the way that I took it and I ran with it.”
Baruth adds, “The idea that we flouted the committee system or we didn’t let leadership know is simply not true.”
Gov. Peter Shumlin backs decriminalizing pot, but House Speaker Shap Smith (D-Morristown) has blocked it from coming before the House.
Now a puff of smoke is rising from the ashes. On Tuesday, Benning, Baruth, Ashe and Sears cut a deal to send the marijuana decrim question to a summer study committee. The Misdemeanor Sentencing Review Committee is tasked with studying decriminalizing marijuana — a law in 13 states, including Maine, Massachusetts and New York — and report back to the legislature by November 15.
Often, summer study committees are where controversial legislation goes to die. But Benning, who will sit on the panel, is optimistic it will at least “keep the ball rolling” on decriminalization.
For his part, Baruth is confident the bill will pass eventually.
“It’s like Whac-A-Mole for people who oppose it,” he says. “It’s going to come up every session, multiple times a session, until we pass it.”
Howard Dean: Sorrell Will Win
Gov. Peter Shumlin made headlines — and raised eyebrows — at a news conference last month when he declined to endorse Attorney General Bill Sorrell for reelection. With Sorrell catching heat over a string of court losses — and now facing a challenge from within the Democratic Party — the gov told reporters, “There are other people seeking those offices” and said he wouldn’t pick his favorite until after Labor Day.
“Other people” turned out to be Chittenden County State’s Attorney T.J. Donovan, a Democrat who will face Sorrell in a primary this summer. Shap Smith hasn’t ruled out making it a three-way race. He said he’ll announce his plans this week.
Is Shumlin’s non-endorsement a sign that establishment Democrats are abandoning Sorrell? The scuttlebutt around Montpelier is that party elders are leaning on the eight-term AG to hang it up and retire. But at least one party bigwig has leapt to Sorrell’s defense.
Former governor Howard Dean, Sorrell’s most reliable and high-profile ally, tells Fair Game he is “all in for Bill.”
“I’m going to campaign for him. I’m going to raise money for him,” Dean says by phone from New Haven, Conn., where he is teaching at Yale. “I don’t see any reason to change horses.”
Dean and Sorrell are thick as thieves. Not surprisingly, the former gov is standing by his man.
Dean credits Sorrell’s late mother, former Burlington lawmaker Esther Hartigan Sorrell, with recruiting him to run for office and launching his political career. When he was governor, Dean made Sorrell his secretary of administration. Dean sought to appoint Sorrell chief justice of the Vermont Supreme Court. When that plan was scuttled, the gov instead appointed the sitting attorney general — Jeffrey Amestoy — to the bench and made Sorrell AG.
Fueling Sorrrell’s electoral competition are several high-profile court losses during his tenure — namely, the Vermont Yankee case, a pharmaceutical data-mining case and a campaign-finance law overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court. In defending his record, Dean says Sorrell lost because “the legislature went out on a limb” in crafting those laws in the first place.
“I signed that campaign-finance bill, and I told the legislature at the time they would lose if it went to court,” Dean says. “But they wanted to push the envelope. In the case of campaign-finance reform, it was well known that was a long shot. I hardly think you can blame the lawyer for losing the case.”
Dean was less emphatic about the Vermont Yankee and data-mining cases because he was not involved in them personally. But he did defend Sorrell’s decision to appeal the Yankee ruling. “The judge made a mistake, and he should appeal that,” the former gov says.
Dean says Donovan called him the night before he entered the race to give him a courtesy heads up. While saying he’d prefer there not be a Democratic primary, Dean says, “People have a right to run for office.”
He ended the short call with a prediction about Sorrell: “I think he’ll win.”
The Race Is On
The Burlington mayor’s race is over, but the race for city council president is getting interesting.
With a new council to be sworn in on April 2 — and current council president Bill Keogh (D-Ward 5) retiring — the bully pulpit, er, president’s chair is up for grabs. Two women are vying for it: Councilor Joan Shannon (D-Ward 5) and Karen Paul (I-Ward 6). Councilor Bram Kranichfeld (D-Ward 2) was pursuing the presidency, too, but withdrew himself from consideration.
Democrats will have seven seats on the 14-member council in the new term. One of them is Councilor Dave Hartnett (D-Ward 4), who rarely caucuses with the Dems and managed Republican Kurt Wright’s mayoral campaign.
Even if Shannon can marshal all seven D votes, she’ll still need one Republican, Progressive or independent vote to be elected prez. Shannon tells Fair Game she doesn’t have it locked up yet, but she’s meeting this week with the three Prog councilors — Vince Brennan, Max Tracy and Rachel Siegel — and also with Councilor Sharon Bushor (I-Ward 1) to seek their support.
At Monday’s city council meeting, one councilor predicted privately to Fair Game that the presidential vote would be a 7-7 tie.
Shannon floated her name as potential council prez last year, but dropped it because she was thinking about a mayoral run. “And I was told nobody wanted anybody who might run for mayor to be council president,” she says.
Paul couldn’t be reached for comment on Tuesday.
The Democrat-led council has been an adversarial, sometimes confrontational, force during the final term of Progressive Mayor Bob Kiss, particularly over the Burlington Telecom debacle. Some councilors this year made a campaign issue of it: They spoke of a need to tone down the partisan rhetoric, put aside differences and get stuff done.
Regardless of who wins the presidency, Democrats will have a controlling plurality on the council after Monday. The big difference between the two “candidates” might be her deference to the mayor. Shannon is a strong supporter of Mayor-elect Miro Weinberger; Paul stayed neutral during the campaign.
With a Dem at the head of the table, would the council go easier on their new mayor?
“I’m ready for a fresh start,” says Councilor Ed Adrian (D-Ward 1), borrowing Weinberger’s well-worn campaign slogan. “But that doesn’t mean that vigorous oversight of the government goes by the wayside.”
(Disclosure: Tim Ashe is the domestic partner of Seven Days publisher and coeditor Paula Routly).