Panel Votes To Decriminalize Less Than Half-Ounce Of Marijuana

The Hartford Courant

On a groundbreaking vote, the legislature’s judiciary committee decided Tuesday night to decriminalize marijuana possession for adults 18 and older who have less than half an ounce of the drug.

Under a compromise, the marijuana laws would not change for anyone under 18, and the amount that would be decriminalized was reduced from less than 1 ounce to less than half an ounce. The possession of small amounts would no longer be a crime and would instead be an infraction with a maximum fine of $250 that could be paid like a speeding ticket.

Some Democratic legislators, including Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney of New Haven, have been pushing hard this year for decriminalization, saying that doing so could save the state more than $11 million in law enforcement costs annually because far fewer people would be sent to state Superior Court to be overseen by prosecutors and probation officials. If marijuana users were issued a ticket that could be paid by mail, they would no longer need to go to court.

The bill passed 24-14 in the Democratic-dominated committee, and the highest-ranking Republican who voted for the measure was deputy House Republican leader William Hamzy of Plymouth

Despite the positive vote Tuesday night, the bill still faces an uphill battle as Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell opposes the decriminalization. Rell vetoed a bill two years ago that would have allowed the use of marijuana for medical purposes to relieve pain.

“Whether it’s little or a lot, it is an illegal substance, and the governor does not support the bill,” Rell’s spokesman, Christopher Cooper, said Tuesday night after the vote.

Cooper noted that the committee vote does not guarantee that the bill will be approved by the full House and Senate. “It may never reach her desk,” he said.

The vote marked a sharp change from the recent history of the legislature on criminal law. Under then-Gov. John G. Rowland and the Republican-controlled Senate in 1995 and 1996, the legislature passed tough-on-crime laws that strengthened the death penalty and increased penalties for criminals. The legislature is now strongly dominated by Democrats, who control more than two-thirds of the seats and have the most seats in the House of Representatives in more than 30 years.

Nationwide, 22 states have passed some form of decriminalization. One of the most recent wasMassachusetts, where offenders receive a civil fine of $100 instead of being charged with a crime.

Currently in Connecticut, possession of less than a half-ounce of marijuana is a misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in jail and a maximum fine of $1,000.

The debate, which lasted more than two hours, touched on a wide variety of opinions on crime and punishment.

House Republican leader Lawrence Cafero of Norwalk spoke strongly Tuesday against changing the law, saying that he has seen drugs ruin numerous lives during the past 16 years that he has served as the expulsion officer for the Norwalk public schools. High-achieving students who once received f A’s and B’s in their classes often fall to C’s and D’s after they have become regular marijuana smokers, Cafero said.

“I’ve seen kids who are getting high at 7 in the morning, sometimes at 12 years old,” Cafero told the committee. “It ruins a lot of lives. It ruins a lot of families.”

He also reminded middle-aged legislators that they should know that marijuana today is far more potent than the drug that was available in the 1970s.

“What is the message that we as a legislature will send when we decriminalize marijuana?” Cafero asked. “That sends a wrong message.”

If the bill becomes law, a person driving 80 mph on the Merritt Parkway would receive a bigger fine than the same person who was possessing 15 marijuana joints, Cafero said.

Later in the debate, Sen. Edwin Gomes said that the speeder is creating more of a risk, based on the number of accidents on the road.

“That person who is speeding should be fined more than someone who has less than a half-ounce of marijuana because he is more of a hazard to the public,” said Gomes, a Bridgeport Democrat.

Sen. John Kissel, the ranking Senate Republican on the committee, said he does not believe that possession of marijuana should be equated to the level of a parking ticket.

“I don’t know where we are going as a state,” Kissel said. “Fundamentally, I think it sets us on exactly the wrong path.”

Rep. Ernest Hewett, a New London Democrat who supported the bill, said it is essentially impossible to stop someone if they want to smoke marijuana.

“I think alcohol is the real problem. We’re just disregarding that,” Hewett said. “I do agree with Rep. Cafero on one thing. This stuff starts at home.”

In the last high-profile debate on the subject, Rell vetoed a bill that would have legalized the medical use of marijuana in June 2007. Although she said that she, as a cancer survivor, had sympathy for those who wanted to use marijuana for pain management, she said that her sympathy could not overcome her concerns that those seeking to obtain the drug would need to break the law to purchase it.

Looney, a chief proponent of the measure, said the bill “represents a compassionate and pragmatic policy. Our state should not encourage illegal drug use; however, possession of marijuana for personal use should not leave a person with a lifelong criminal record.”

The bill would cut costs for police, courts, public defenders and prosecutors, he said. The legislature’s Office of Fiscal Analysis said the 9,928 marijuana arrests in Connecticut in 2007 represented 7 percent of total arrests statewide, and estimated 3,300 of those involved less than 1 ounce.

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