By Jason McLure
(Reuters) - Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin signed a bill Thursday that made the state the 17th in the United States to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana.
Under the law, possession of less than 1 ounce of marijuana (28.3 grams) would be treated as a civil penalty with fines akin to a traffic ticket. Previously, possession of up to two ounces (56.6 grams) of pot was a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail for a first offense and up to two years in jail for later offenses.
"This change just makes common sense," said Shumlin, a Democrat. "Our limited resources should be focused on reducing abuse and addiction of opiates like heroin and meth rather than cracking down on people for having very small amounts of marijuana."
The law also decriminalizes possession of less than 5 grams of hashish, a more potent marijuana derivative. People younger than the legal drinking age of 21 caught with small amounts of marijuana would be treated the same as if they were in possession of alcohol, and be referred to a court diversion program for a first offense.
Vermont's law is similar to those in California, Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, Nebraska, New York, Oregon and Rhode Island, where non-medical possession of marijuana is treated as a civil offense.
But the state did not go as far as Washington and Colorado, where laws allowing the recreational use of marijuana by adults passed last year.
Minnesota, Mississippi, Nevada, North Carolina and Ohio treat marijuana possession as a fine-only misdemeanor offense, according to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, which favors decriminalization.
"The trend is extremely good both in public opinion and the number of bills being introduced and being passed," said Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the group.
He noted that New Jersey, New Hampshire and Hawaii have also taken up similar bills, though all three were defeated.
Opponents warned that decriminalizing marijuana would take a toll on public health, noting that marijuana smoke contains more cancer-causing substances than tobacco smoke, which also causes lung cancer.
"It's a very unfortunate trend, the public perception of the dangers of marijuana has not caught up with the science," said David Evans, special adviser to the Drug Free America Foundation. "Ten to 20 years from now when the science is more apparent to everybody, they're going to be very sorry for what they did."
Vermont passed a law in 2004 allowing for the use of medical marijuana with the supervision of a doctor.
(Editing by Scott Malone; Editing by David Gregorio)