Vermont decriminalizes pot... sort of

This is definitely the sort of story which will bring many people to their feet with a rousing cry of, “wait… you mean it wasn’t already legal to smoke pot in Vermont?

Apparently it wasn’t. And even after a new law signed by the governor on Thursday, it’s still not legal legal. But it has been decriminalized. (Hat tip to Doug over at OTB.)

Vermont has become the 17th state to get rid of criminal penalties for the possession of small amounts of marijuana.

Gov. Peter Shumlin signed a measure into law Thursday.

The law replaces criminal penalties with civil fines similar to a traffic ticket for possession of up to an ounce of marijuana or five grams of hashish.

So it’s still against the law to smoke or have in your possession small amounts (under an ounce) of weed. But instead of the 6 to 24 months at the Crowbar Motel which you could previously get for it, you’ll be slapped with the equivalent of a traffic ticket, pay a fine, and not wind up with a felony on your record. This is in contrast to certain places in the northwest which have moved (or are moving) to make it strictly legal for recreational use. Another possible example of the latter case may be coming in Pennsylvania.

HARRISBURG, Pa. (KDKA) – Add Pennsylvania to the list of states where residents could be allowed to possess and smoke marijuana legally.

Democrat State Sen. Daylin Leach, who represents Montgomery and Delaware counties, announced plans to introduce legislation that would legalize marijuana in Pennsylvania.

The bill would legalize marijuana for adults over the age of 21, and regulated just like alcohol is. It would still be illegal to drive under the influence of marijuana, behave badly while publicly intoxicated, or sell pot to minors.

I know there’s still a lot of resistance to this in conservative circles, but I’ve long since stopped seeing any net benefit in harsh marijuana laws, and this is looking more and more like one of those societal shifts which has pretty much reached the tipping point of inevitability. Locking up millions of people for pot possession is massively expensive in both direct and indirect costs, and it’s rather hypocritical to treat it that much differently than alcohol. If we’re willing to give people leave to take responsibility for the consequences of their own actions when it comes to drinking, it just doesn’t look like that much of a stretch to say the same thing about weed.

(Does anyone still call it weed? I was just informed the other day that nobody says “joint” any more either. I’ve fallen behind the times on drug terminology over the last few decades.)

If people are going to sell it anyway, we may as well tax it an pay off a couple of other bills. But maybe that’s just me. The “war on drugs” was a losing proposition from the beginning, it seems. And if we can reduce the incentive for cartels to crash over the borders to supply a population of currently criminal customers, it may deliver some other benefits as well.

The only minor bone I have to pick with this – and hence the title – is the way we use the word decriminalize in such contexts. A while back I looked up the definition of the word in one of those online legal dictionaries and it seems to mean just what it sounds like.

decriminalization n. the repeal or amendment (undoing) of statutes which made certain acts criminal, so that those acts no longer are crimes or subject to prosecution.

What they did in Vermont, as well as New York and other places, isn’t really decriminalization as such, at least to my way of thinking. It’s still illegal. It’s just been moved down to a low rent class of crime without such stiff penalties. Of course, I’m not sure if there’s a better word available for that. Your thoughts?