Penalty Will Be Reduced For First-Time Pot Possession
June 08, 2011
HARTFORD - First-timers caught with a small amount of pot in Connecticut will soon be treated like traffic scofflaws instead of criminals.
The House of Representatives voted 90-57 Tuesday to decriminalize possession of a half-ounce or less of marijuana, the equivalent of about 30 joints. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy hailed the measure as a fairer - and more fiscally sound - public policy, and intends to sign it once it reaches his desk. The new law will take effect July 1.
Activists pushing for a change in the state's marijuana laws savored their victory. They had argued for years that the state's current drug laws unfairly stigmatize young people, especially minorities, by burdening them with criminal records for relatively minor offenses.
"This restores justice," said LaResse Harvey, policy director for A Better Way Foundation, a Hartford-based group that advocates treatment instead of incarceration for drug offenders. "It will have a dramatic impact on a variety of communities, especially the black and Puerto Rican communities."
With the stroke of Malloy's pen, Connecticut will become the 14th state to sharply reduce penalties for those caught with small amounts of pot. The proposal, which narrowly cleared the Senate on Saturday, eliminates criminal penalties and instead institutes a $150 fine for first-time offenders; second and subsequent offenses would draw a penalty of at least $200 but no more than $500.
As part of a compromise, the Senate amended the measure to stiffen the punishment for young people caught with the drug. The possession and use of even a small amount of marijuana by a person 21 or younger would result in a 60-day driver's license suspension. Those 18 and under would be referred to juvenile justice authorities. Another provision requires those with three or more offenses to obtain drug counseling at their own expense.
During the course of a debate in the House that stretched on for nearly five hours, some lawmakers spoke of feeling conflicted.
Rep. Rob Sampson, a Republican from Wolcott, said he generally takes a libertarian view of government regulation. But in this case, Sampson said, he is wary of what kind of message decriminalizing marijuana would send to young people. "I don't know if we're ready to make this move just yet," he said, though he ultimately voted yes.
Supporters say reducing the penalties for marijuana possession makes sense at a time when the state's criminal justice resources are stretched thin. Money spent investigating and prosecuting low-level marijuana possession could be better spent combating serious crimes, they say.
The legislature's nonpartisan Office of Fiscal Analysis estimates Connecticut would save $885,000 annually in prosecutor and public defender salaries as well as court costs. OFA also found that the state could net up to $1.4 million annually in fines and fees.
But saving money wasn't the sole motivator.
"We know that in communities and countries where decriminalization of marijuana is implemented ... the policy has actually worked," said Majority Leader Brendan Sharkey. He cited a study showing a steep decline in drug use among youths in Portugal after officials there decriminalized marijuana and added more treatment options.
"I realize these are tough policy decisions we have to make," Sharkey said. "And sometimes they may seem counterintuitive ... tougher penalties don't necessarily lead to lower use."
But others spoke of the toll that drug abuse exacts on addicts, their families and society as a whole. Rep. John Frey, a Republican from Ridgefield, spoke of the heartbreak of his niece's drug addiction. "For her, marijuana was the gateway drug," he said. "She spent all but one month of her senior year in high school in a rehab facility."
Bristol Democratic Rep. Frank Nicastro worked as a truant officer in that city for 17 years and said he has seen countless lives wrecked by addiction.
"What we're saying to the youth of our state is it's not a crime anymore and they're going to take advantage of that because they don't realize how dangerous marijuana can be," Nicastro said
Rep. Brenda Kupchick, R-Fairfield, questioned that argument. She said she has family members who were drug addicts and state law had nothing to do with their addiction.
"I've known a lot of people over my lifetime who've used marijuana, and who grew up to be productive citizens and never used drugs again," Kupchick said. "And I know people who took drugs out of their parents' medicine cabinet and became full blown drug addicts and lost their lives."
Marijuana will not be legal under the new policy. As initially drafted, the proposal would have decriminalized one ounce of marijuana or less, but the amount was lowered in an effort to win additional support for the bill.
Rep. Themis Klarides, a Derby Republican and a critic of the plan, noted the arbitrary nature of the threshold. "It can't be OK if you have 30 marijuana cigarettes and bad if you have 50 marijuana cigarettes," she said. "It's either bad or it's not bad."
Malloy noted that the new policy puts Connecticut's laws in line with those of two neighboring states, New York and Massachusetts.
But the Connecticut Police Chiefs Association cited Massachusetts as an example of what it does not want to see in Connecticut. Marijuana possession was decriminalized in the Bay State in 2008, but that state's highest court ruled in April that the smell of marijuana is not enough to order suspects from their cars.
Cromwell police Chief Anthony Salvatore, legislative co-chairman for the police chiefs' group, said he wants to make sure police in Connecticut still have the option of searching a vehicle if they have probable cause.
Correction published Thursday, June 9, 2011*The House of Representatives approved decriminalizing less than half an ounce of marijuana. The amount was incorrect on Page 1 Wednesday.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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