House committee passes drug trafficking bill

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(Host) The House Wednesday afternoon gave its preliminary approval to legislation that increases penalties for people convicted of selling drugs. However the bill does not include a key provision that Governor Jim Douglas was supporting.

VPR’s Bob Kinzel reports:

(Kinzel) Backers of the bill say it’s part of an overall effort to address a growing drug problem in the state. Representative Maxine Grad (D-Moretown) told House members that the legislation is an effort to provide law enforcement officials with additional options when they charge people with dealing drugs:

(Grad) “The Judiciary Committee heard in testimony that H206 is only part of the full picture of addressing substance abuse. We repeatedly heard the phrase ‘three-legged stool’ used in reference to effective substance abuse policy. Such policy must have one – prevention and education, two – enforcement, and three – treatment and recovery. As a Judiciary Committee, we can only do what was within our jurisdiction. That is interdiction and enforcement.”

(Kinzel) Committee Chair Peg Flory (R-Pittsford) says the key to the bill is the establishment of a new crime – drug trafficking. Flory says it will allow police officers to charge people caught with large amounts of heroin, cocaine and methamphetamines with a very serious offense, even though the police did not witness an actual sale of these drugs. This charge will carry a penalty of up to 30 years in jail and a fine up of to a million dollars:

(Flory) “What we came up with was a charge of trafficking in the three of them, which allows a permissive inference that a person who possesses those drugs in the amounts above the threshold that we have set is a trafficker. These are people who are doing it for profit.”

(Kinzel) The legislation does not include Governor Douglas’ plan to set up a Megan’s Law for drug dealers. This provision would have required local police to notify community members when a convicted drug dealer moves into their neighborhood.

While many states, including Vermont, have laws requiring community notification for convicted sex offenders, no state has adopted the policy for drug dealers. Committee members said there were too many unanswered questions surrounding the governor’s proposal. Douglas says he’ll continue to work for the plan:

(Douglas) “I really believe that the interests of our kids trump the convenience of the dealers. We have to do what we can to protect young Vermonters, the families of our state. It’s so easy for kids to be attracted to drug dealers and tempted by them and seduced by them that I think we have to take this measure to protect them.”

(Kinzel) The drug legislation will come up for final approval in the House on Thursday.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Bob Kinzel in Montpelier.

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