Statehouse Headliners: Bills would give immigrants legal help in court, make heroin and coke possession a misdemeanor

By Guy Page

A medical marijuana dispensary operator recently told a Vermont newspaper that smoking marijuana reduces opioid use by chronic pain sufferers. His claim is contradicted by numerous peer-reviewed studies.

Dr. Dustin Sulak recently told Seven Days his own patients used fewer opioids by smoking pot purchased at his dispensary in Maine. In striking opposition to this claim, a Pain Medicine Journal study concludes that “Concurrent use of cannabis and opioids by patients with chronic pain appears to indicate higher risk for opioid misuse.” A 2018 Journal of Psychiatry study found that “Cannabis use appears to increase rather than decrease the risk of developing nonmedical prescription opioid use and opioid use disorder.” (A physician associated with Physicians, Families and Friends for a Better Vermont found at least three other peer-reviewed studies reaching the same conclusion.) Even the authors of a much-ballyhooed study saying legal pot states see fewer opioid prescriptions say pot isn’t the answer to the opioid crisis.

S.216, a bill expanding medical marijuana to cover any and all medical conditions while removing the “local option” to ban the cultivation and sale of medical marijuana within a municipality, has been passed by the Senate and is now in the House Human Services Committee. It is not listed on the committee agenda for next week.

Bill would pay State of Vermont public defender lawyers to help immigrants in federal court — A bill likely to go before the House this coming week would permit state-paid public defenders to provide legal help to immigrants in the federal court system.

S.237, “providing representation to needy persons concerning immigration matters,” would allow Vermont public defenders, including the Vermont Defender General’s office, to provide in federal courts “representation in or with respect to a matter arising out of or relating to immigration status.” The federal court system already offers court-appointed legal counsel. S.237 passed the Senate 28-2, with only Franklin County Sens. Randy Brock and Carolyn Branagan voting no.

S.237 was approved 8-1 by House Judiciary last week. The average Vermont Defender General case costs $500 to $3,500, according to budget documents. The Defender General’s budget has been increased by about $300,000 in the 2019 budget now under review, but the increase is not believed to be related to any extra federal court duties. One main supporter of S.237 on Judiciary said it should not require much, if any, extra state money, as the assistance is less likely to be courtroom representation and more likely to be less time-consuming legal advice. However, S.237 “would not preclude” courtroom representation in federal court by a Vermont Defender General lawyer, the lawmaker said.

Bill would make heroin, coke possession a misdemeanorH.797, sponsored by House Judiciary members Rep. Selene Colburn (Burlington), Rep. Janssen Wilhoit (St. Johnsbury), and Rep. Barbara Rachelson (Burlington) and discussed in their committee last week, would turn felony possession of heroin, cocaine, LSD, methamphetamines, and ecstasy into a misdemeanor.

H.797 amends current state drug law to categorize all possession of these illegal drugs as a misdemeanor, regardless of quantity possessed. Selling, dispensing or trafficking these drugs would remain a felony under a newly created category of “possession with intent to sell.”

“Criminal justice system interactions can be very damaging to people in achieving recovery,” Rep. Colburn reportedly told Vermont Public Radio. “It makes it harder to get a job. It makes it harder to get employment.” Although the bill failed to make crossover, Judiciary may try to add the language to another bill and get it passed into law this year. H.797 is supported by Vermont Attorney General TJ Donovan.

The committee heard testimony from drug decriminalization lobbyist David Mickenberg of the Drug Policy Alliance Network. A report submitted by Mickenberg claims that decriminalization in Portugal has not led to more drug use, but has resulted in less incarceration and disease, and fewer arrests. The report also claims that “discriminatory enforcement of drug possession laws has produced profound racial and ethnic disparities at all levels of the criminal justice system.”

H.797 lightens sentencing for drug users, but it doesn’t toughen sentencing for the out-of-state heroin dealers who are targeting young Vermonters. It leaves unchanged a 1989 provision (18 VSA 4233-d) that allows a judge to tack on 10 more years for bringing drugs to Vermont with intent to sell.

Rep. Gary Viens (Orleans-2), a retired Border Patrol agent who is often a minority voice on House Judiciary, was asked last week by Headliners if his committee has done anything specific to address the problem of Vermont youth being targeted by out-of-state drug dealers. “Nothing. Absolutely nothing,” he said. A spokesperson for the governor’s administration said he is unaware of any such initiatives on the executive level, and said he would refer the question to state public safety officials.

It’s not like out-of-state drug dealers (especially those from the New York City borough of the Bronx) haven’t been in the news. Consider these headlines:

Bronx, NY man sentenced to over 15 years for supplying a kilogram of heroin and fentanyl for distribution in Vermont” – March 23, 2018, Vermont U.S. Attorney’s Office

Three Rutland County Residents Plead Guilty to Hosting Out-of-State Drug Dealers at Their Residences in Violation of Federal Crack-House Statute” – March 9, 2018, VT U.S. Attorney’s Office

First new bust for crime unit” [arrest of Bronx man in St. Albans for possession 1.25 lbs. cocaine] – January 14, 2018, WCAX

Vermont lawmakers and police know that out-of-state drug dealers are pushing their product hard in Vermont, and that young people are suffering and dying. Headliners will look into what police and policymakers are doing, specifically, to stop them.

Statehouse Headliners is intended primarily to educate, not advocate. It is e-mailed to an ever-growing list of interested Vermonters, public officials and media. Guy Page is affiliated with the Vermont Energy Partnership, Divestment Facts, the Vermont Alliance for Ethical Healthcare and the Church at Prison.

Image courtesy of Bruce Parker/TNR

8 thoughts on “Statehouse Headliners: Bills would give immigrants legal help in court, make heroin and coke possession a misdemeanor

  1. My God , where do these mindless legislators come from ??

    Will there ever be an end to the nonsense !!

    • Nope, and the FAKE Media like WCAX, WPTZ , VPR, WFFF and BFP never report on this kind of stuff, they are doing in Montpelier. Even the liberal press, Seven Days hides and protects the Dems and Progressives in Montpelier.

  2. Let’s see, illeagl immigrants get welfare, get tax breaks, get food stamps, some vote, so what else is new. The folks in Montpelier are like a Christams Santa, they just keep on giving with everyone elses money.

  3. I don’t mind if bill S-237 is formed to help legal immigrants with legal issues, but I do mind if it’s to help illegal immigrants. Illegal immigrants in my eyes are criminals and should be deported. A one way ticket back home would be a better use of the money.

  4. Why not just make all drugs legal! So another slap on the wrist. As for funding illegals for lawyers is crazy….can’t wait to move from this sTate.

  5. Unbelievable. They want to take away my rights as a responsible gun owner but they also want to take my taxpayer monies to pay for more illegal benefits.
    It’s now becoming that you’re better off being an illegal or a drugee than a person that follows the law.
    What is happening in this State? Have all of our legislatures lost it? It is unbelievable..

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