Vermonters Overwhelmingly Back Drug Decriminalization. Will Lawmakers Listen?

    A large majority of people in Vermont—84 percent—support removing criminal penalties for low-level drug possession, according to a poll released June 30 by Data for Progress and the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA). The question for advocates is how to translate that overwhelming sentiment into political action.

    During this year’s legislative session, 42 Democrat and independent state legislators sponsored bill H.644, which would lead to decriminalization. The bill received support from a coalition of groups in the state called Decriminalize Vermont. However, it has not passed the legislature—and if it did, Governor Phil Scott (R) could be a major obstacle to its becoming law.

    In May, Gov. Scott vetoed the bill H.505. Among other stipulations, it would have created a panel to standardize personal-use amounts of various illegal drugs—removing sentencing disparities between crack and powder cocaine that have long been seen to disproportionately punish people of color. Some viewed the bill as a first step towards decriminalization.

    Grey Gardner, senior staff attorney for DPA, said that he hopes the new poll will help build momentum for decriminalization and other harm reduction policies. Conducted between May 26 and June 8, it surveyed 547 likely voters in the state through SMS and the web. Over 84 percent supported the idea that instead of facing criminal penalties, people in possession of drugs for personal use would be “directed towards services like addiction treatment and healthcare.”

    “This reaffirms that people across the board, of all backgrounds, want to see Vermont in a leadership position in pushing better policies.”

    “The results are strong and they are reflective of what a lot of experts expected,” Gardner told Filter. “People are seeing that what we’ve been doing in the past has not helped, and that when people are incarcerated, that actually exacerbates the dangers.”

    He noted that Vermont suffered one of the highest overdose-rate increases in the United States last year. State data also show that from January to March this year, there were 43 overdose deaths—higher than the previous three years’ first-quarter average of 38.

    Although Republican voters are generally expected to be less supportive of measures like drug decriminalization, the poll found broad support across all major demographics and party affiliations, a DPA press release noted.

    Democrats did back decriminalization at higher rates, with 64 percent strongly supportive and 27 percent somewhat supportive. For Republicans, these numbers were 32 percent and 36 percent, respectively.

    “I think this reaffirms that people across the board, of all backgrounds, want to see Vermont in a leadership position in pushing better policies related to drugs,” Gardner said.

    Another finding he pointed to is that around half of respondents (52 percent for Democrats and 56 percent for Republicans) have either personally experienced or know someone who has experienced addiction and/or overdose.

    In a finding Vermont’s lawmakers might do well to heed, 63 percent said they would be more likely to vote for a political candidate who supports decriminalization.

    “Across ideological backgrounds, people tend to support treating addiction as a health issue more so than as a criminal issue,” Gardner said. Eighty-one percent of respondents supported reframing Vermont’s drug policy approach by moving it away from being a legal and police matter, and towards being treated as a health issue with harm reduction, health care and recovery-services responses.

    And in a finding that Vermont’s lawmakers might do well to heed, 63 percent of respondents said they would be more likely to vote for a political candidate who supports decriminalization.

    Meanwhile, 68 percent of respondents expressed support for non-police crisis response programs; 60 percent favored removing criminal records associated with drug possession; and 59 percent supported creating safe consumption sites (also known as overdose prevention centers).

    On June 7, Gov. Scott vetoed H.728, a bill that would have established a working group to research such sites and move toward providing them. He claimed, inaccurately, that there was a lack of “clear data on the effectiveness of this approach.”

    The Vermont poll comes on the heels of a recent national one with comparable findings. In that survey 47 percent and 35 percent of Democrat voters strongly or somewhat supported decriminalization, respectively. The equivalent numbers for Republicans were 19 percent and 35 percent. In total, 69 percent of likely voters supported decriminalization of small-scale drug possession.

    “In many different areas, people want to see different approaches,” Gardner said. “I think people—not just in Vermont but around the country—are starting to realize that what they’ve been told about drugs is wrong.”



    Photograph by Jimmy Emerson via Flickr/Creative Commons 2.0

    DPA previously provided a restricted grant to The Influence Foundation, which operates Filter, to support a Drug War Journalism Diversity Fellowship.

    • Doug is a writer, editor and journalist whose work has appeared in National Geographic, Undark Magazine, New Scientist and Hakai, among others. He lives in Alberta, Canada.

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