For an issue that at one time was as divisive and polarizing as they come, last week's vote in the Vermont House of Representatives on a bill that would decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana was a welcome sign that some rationality is beginning to creep into this conversation.

If enacted in its present form, the legislation would make possession of less than an ounce of the drug punishable by fine of up to $300 and a civil penalty roughly equal to a traffic ticket. While this is a common sense approach to regulating the recreational use of a narcotic substance that a large percentage of Vermonters spanning several age brackets currently partake of, it stops short of what might be a more consistent approach and one that perhaps deserves more dialogue. That would be to treat the substance in virtually the same way we do alcohol, a drug that enjoys, if that's the right term, even more widespread use than marijuana, has many of the same questions attached to it, but has clear rules governing its use and availability.

It's also a taxable product, which marijuana could also be. Legalizing the use of marijuana for adults over the age of 21 and taxing them for the privilege of purchasing it from legal and regulated vendors wouldn't balance the state's budget all by itself, but it might help the state's bottom line. More importantly, it would bring clarity and consistency to an often vexed and conflicted subject.

Right now, some one caught with any amount of the illegal drug, or found to be cultivating it, faces the prospect of criminal charges. That's a hefty punishment for someone who may be a casual, once in a while user, or for a youngster who might have the offense disqualify them from jobs or college scholarships just as they are starting out in life. It certainly seems ridiculous to apply the same sort of penalty for someone who may be well into their 50s or 60s, and enjoys occasional recreational use at their home.

We understand that many law enforcement officials have qualms and reservations about the thrust of the decriminalization bill, and those concerns should be taken seriously. But if the issue is about clarifying when an individual has committed a punishable offense, then the new legislation, should it become law, will move us in that direction.

There's good reason to treat marijuana use, especially by youngsters under 21, as a serious problem. Number one, it's already very prevalent, and most studies that we're familiar with indicate Vermont is right up there with the states where such use is widespread.

Most medical studies also indicate that repeated, or even occasional marijuana use by youngsters carries real risks of harming brain development and mental acuity. "Spaced out" isn't always a laughing matter, especially when used by motorists, and the current legislation under consideration takes this into account.

But the more insidious danger is that premature use of the drug does bring the real risk of permanent mental damage if consumed before the brain's pathways are fully developed. That's different for everybody, of course, but as a society, we have settled on 21 as the demarcation point between minor and adult status, and that seems as good a point as any to use with marijuana until more evidence tells us otherwise.

The physiological risks associated with marijuana use give us all the more reason then, to spell out clearly when it's acceptable and when it's not. In a perfect world, we think that if legalized and sold as a regulated product along the lines of tobacco and alcohol, a percentage of the tax revenue from sales of legal marijuana should be dedicated to educational programs targeted at underage youngsters to teach them that this is not stuff to be trifled with before reaching maturity. The same applies to alcohol and cigarettes. Be patient, and you too will have the chance to impose harm on yourself, just like older adults often do.

Once past 21, however, we allow people to smoke tobacco and drink alcohol, and tax them cheerfully for the privilege. The rules and risks are clearly understood. The same would seem to make sense for marijuana use, which we would put in a different category from "harder" drugs like cocaine or heroin, or addictive pharmaceutical pills. The latter are insidious vices that bring real harm to both users and their friends and families, and their use or mis-use should be punishable by stiff penalties for trafficking in them. Yes, there is plenty of evidence to suggest marijuana is a gateway drug to those darker substances. But that's not stopping plenty of people of all ages from using them now. Putting marijuana on the same footing as cigarettes and alcohol isn't going to change that much. It might even dampen the demand, by setting the penalties for mis-use clearly, and eliminating the allure of taking a risk to flaunt the authorities and polite society. In addition, there would be a financial factor. The price should be fairly steep, taxes included, but not so steep as too encourage a form of cannabis bootlegging, which again, not to belabor the point, we have going on right now.

We're not advocating here for condoning misuse of the drug or other drugs, or for allowing everyone to light up whenever they want, but for a mature and adult approach to the use of a product which it would be better to bring into the light of day. The bill which passed the House is a good step, and there things may rest for awhile, as we see how that goes. If passed by the state Senate and signed into law by the governor, it would make Vermont the 16th state in the nation to have similar legislation on its legal statutes.

We're not exactly breaking new ground here.