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It's High Time To Get Real About Marijuana

Rick Green

April 03, 2009

We're told that decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana will send a mixed, confusing message about drug use, especially to young people.

Yet we are already easing the penalties for potheads unless you are one of the unlucky few who gets the book thrown at you.

Our state judicial system is all over the map when it comes to citizens caught with small amounts of reefer. It makes the governor and opponents in the legislature look pretty silly opposing a proposal to make getting caught with a little pot more like a speeding ticket.

How the state treats you depends on where you're caught. That's what is confusing.

Say the police in Manchester caught me driving around town one night smoking a joint with a small bag of weed on the dashboard. I'd be arrested and sent to Superior Court in Manchester. This being a misdemeanor and me never having been arrested before, I might get off with a fine, a diversionary program or even have my case dismissed.

It's unlikely, but I could end up like one of the 74 people that a state government report says are in jail or awaiting trial for possession of less than 4 ounces of pot.

On the other hand, if I were pulled over in West Hartford with less than 4 ounces of marijuana, it would be a different story.

I would be sent to community court in Hartford, where our justice system sends people arrested for low-level nonviolent crimes in the Hartford area. It is one of two prototype community courts in the state and a national model that serves Hartford and a handful of surrounding towns.

At community court, getting caught with pot is akin to cranking the car stereo.

If I'm polite and after a month my urine shows that I'm marijuana-free, my record would be cleaned in return for one day of picking up trash around Hartford.

This makes it pretty ridiculous to argue that we're sending some kind of message when we arrest people for smoking pot.

"It brings to mind, what are we doing here that there is a different standard in each courthouse," said Superior Court Judge Raymond Norko, the presiding judge in community court. All these marijuana arrests are "a severe demand on law enforcement and the court system that could be addressed more efficiently."

I sat in community court one morning this week as a parade of young people from Hartford and the suburbs went before the judge. Amid the music blasters and the Westfarms shoplifters were the pot smokers. Justice was pretty simple: Follow the rules, do a day or two of community service and all is forgiven.

A man was called up from the crowded courtroom benches as the prosecutor announced that police had found a "small amount of green plant substance" during his arrest.

"You know what it means. It means you have to stop smoking," Judge Joseph Q. Koletsky tells him. "See you in June."

With that, he's done as long as he passes a urine test and does his day of community service.

The morning moves along, with about one in 10 cases being small-time pot arrests. "If your urine test is clean on the fifth of June you will be assigned community service on the eighth. Then you can truthfully say you have never been arrested," Koletsky tells another.

Chief State's Attorney Kevin Kane told me that people arrested for small amounts of marijuana rarely face conviction. Still, he said, it's important to send a message, especially to young people.

Norko told me that his court "handles it much more realistically and we extract from the defendant a sense that it is still illegal. We are treating this proportionately."

The real message about our society and pot is pretty obvious, said Norko, who sees more pot smokers than nearly any other judge in the state.

"Small amounts of marijuana are eventually going to end up decriminalized."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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