In Vermont Democratic Party, marijuana decrim gets huge new advocate

Since he co-founded Marijuana Resolve with former Brattleboro legislator Darryl Pillsbury in July of 2010, Vidda Crochetta has followed the politics of decriminalization more closely than most.

And in the flare-up last week over Gov. Peter Shumlin’s solicitation of a $2,000 campaign contribution from a political action committee run by the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, Crochetta says he witnessed a critical moment in the evolution of the decriminalization movement.

Until last week, decriminalization advocacy had been the purview of individual candidates – led by Shumlin – who view the elimination of criminal penalties for small-time marijuana possession as one component of their “smart-on-crime” platforms.

But when Randy Brock chastised Shumlin publicly for a campaign donation that, according to the Republican gubernatorial candidate, belied his lack of “moral leadership,” it wasn’t Shumlin that defended himself.

It was the Vermont Democratic Party.

“And that is really a huge difference,” Crochetta told the Press Bureau last week. “It’s wonderful to have to the support of the governor, and legislators and senators who have also taken a common-sense approach to this issue. But for the entire party to be behind this now is something new and very exciting.”

In response to Brock’s criticism, Vermont Democratic Party Chairman Jake Perkinson said the Republican’s opposition to decriminalization “is another example of his out-of-touch approach.”

“Vermonters don’t want their tax dollars used to prosecute people for possessing small amounts of marijuana. It doesn’t make sense, it wastes money and it does nothing to make our communities safer,” Perkinson said in a written statement. “It’s 2012, not 1950. Vermonters have come to the common sense conclusion that decriminalization will ease the burden on our law enforcement and legal system, while saving taxpayer dollars.”

VDP communications director Ariel Wengroff said that while the decriminalization stance hasn’t been enshrined in the party’s platform – that would take a vote of the state committee – the party’s chairman supports the concept of marijuana law reform in Vermont and fully supports the Governor’s position on this issue.”

She said state Democratic parties in Iowa, Colorado, North Carolina and most recently Texas have done the same.

“The Party’s common-sense decision to stand behind Vermonters and support small amounts of marijuana decriminalization will save taxpayer dollars, while easing the burden on our law enforcement and legal system,” Wengroff said.

Crochetta said the party’s public stance bodes well for decriminalization legislation in 2013. Past efforts to replace criminal sanctions with civil fines have been blocked by Democratic House Speaker Shap Smith.

Democratic politicians that stand in the way of decriminalization bills now, Crochetta said, face off not just against individual politicians, but against a party that controls both chambers of the Legislature as well as the governor’s office.

“To have the weight of the party behind this gives it a heavier kind of momentum,” Crochetta says.

Smith, who has drawn the ire of pro-decriminalization advocates who view him as the chief obstacle to its passage, was unavailable for comment last week. He has previously said he’ll allow hearings on decriminalization next year, which could well lead to a long-awaited vote on decriminalization on the House floor.