Friday May 10, 2013

KEITH WHITCOMB JR.

Staff Writer

BENNINGTON -- With the state likely to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana this summer, the local nonprofit that handles court diversion cases is preparing for the changes.

Leitha Cipriano, executive director of the Center for Restorative Justice, said there is still a degree of uncertainty on what effect the bill, passed by the state Senate on Wednesday, will ultimately have. The Senate version is more restrictive than the House of Representatives version, which passed in April, and before the bill can become law it must go back to the House.

Cipriano said decriminalization is not legalization, a distinction she fears may be lost on some young people as well as adults. Those caught with less than an ounce of marijuana who are 21 and over will face a civil fine, but for those between the ages of 16 and 20 the penalty is expected to be similar to an underage drinking offense.

She said the CRJ has a program for underage drinking offense, called the Teen Alcohol Safety Program. First time offenders have to undergo an education curriculum and complete other requirements to avoid a fine.

The decriminalization law would require there be a similar program for marijuana offenses. Cipriano said while the CRJ handles marijuana diversion now, it does so mainly through a reparative board which tailors requirement to each individual.

The Department of Health will likely help create a standardized curriculum, Cipriano said, which may be built separately, tweaked from the TASP program, or merged with TASP to become a more general substance abuse education program.

Cipriano said approximately 40 percent of cases CRJ handles are for people over 16 placed on diversion for marijuana possession. Giving fines for those over 21 caught with less than an ounce may take some of the load off, she said, but it’s also possible that a combination of ignorance and acceptance may lead to more youths coming to CRJ on marijuana offenses. She said not only is it possible many may think marijuana will be legal, children may start to see it in a less negative light. The health risks of marijuana still exist, she said.

CRJ is not expecting a large influx of such cases but should that happen, Cipriano said she expects the state would be supportive. While the decriminalization bill provides for no additional restorative justice funding, legislators and state agencies have long stood behind what CRJ aims to do.

Contact Keith Whitcomb Jr. at kwhitcomb@benningtonbanner.com or follow him on Twitter @KWhitcombjr.