The move to decriminalize marijuana in the state of Connecticut came as a one-two punch. First the Senate voted to reduce the charges of possessing small amounts of marijuana, narrowly passing it after Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman broke the 18-18 vote.
Then, after a nearly four-hour debate, the House voted 90-57 to do the same before Gov. Dannel P. Malloy signed the bill into law.
The law will not legalize pot, but will reduce the severity of the charge of possession of less than one-half ounce from a misdemeanor to an infraction. It will now result in a fine of $150 for the first offense, with subsequent offenses ranging from $200-$500.
Offenders under 21 will face a 60-day suspension of their driver’s license — much like alcohol possession. Minors 18 years or younger will be subjected to juvenile court.
Under previous law, pot possession was punishable by a possible jail term and fines of $1,000 for a first offense and $3,000 for subsequent offenses.
There were 9,290 pot busts of people 18 and older statewide in 2009, most for possession of less than one-half ounce, according to the legislature’s Office of Fiscal Analysis.
Currently 13 states including New York and Massachusetts have decriminalized pot, and 16 states and Washington, D.C., have approved it for medical use.
So what do the police on the drug beat think about modifying the existing law?
“The truth is I have mixed feelings about decriminalization,” said Fairfield Police Lt. James Perez. “On the one hand, this will lighten up the court system and save time for police officers who won’t have to take offenders down to the station. I don’t want to contradict the anti-drug message I used to teach to kids in DARE (an anti-drug program).”
Perez, who said he does not shy away from his belief that the effects of alcohol are far worse than the effects of pot, still questions whether legislators properly thought this out before passing this bill.
“What will be the residual effects?” he asked. “It might embolden drug dealers who could offer incentives like … ‘I’ll pay your fine if you get caught.’ Maybe insurance companies will increase premiums for people who smoke pot. And because it’s still a violation of law, will the charge be recorded in driving records if an officer finds it in someone’s car? I’m not sure this will really solve more problems than it may create. But officers will continue to make arrests.
Yet, some lawmakers scoff at the notion of unintended consequences.
“Any time you make a new law you have people pounding their chests with far-fetched ideas that could happen as a result, like drug dealers offering incentives … my goodness,” said Deputy Majority Leader and state Sen. Edwin Gomes (D-23rd). “And insurance companies will raise rates no matter what you do — pot or no pot. I voted yes on decriminalization because I don’t think people should have a felony on their record for that sort of thing. Youngsters do a lot of things I don’t approve of, like smoking pot. I may not approve, but I don’t want to see it haunting them later in life. I don’t know about legalizing pot, but the vote was on decriminalization and I’m all for that.”
Connecticut spends upward of $130 million a year enforcing the pot ban.
“Let’s call a spade a spade. The truth is that nobody ever goes to jail for pot,” said Assistant Majority Leader and state Sen. Bob Duff (D-25th), who voted in favor of decriminalization. “The law was that those caught with marijuana were arrested and went to jail, but they only ended up paying a fine. That tied up the courts, used up the resources of the police and cost the state tens of millions of dollars. So we are just codifying current practice into state law. It’s practical.”
But Duff stressed that this new law will only affect adults caught with pot.
“People under 21 face a 60-day driver suspension and those under 18 must go to court with their parents,” he added.
Poll shows support
A recent Quinnipiac poll found that Connecticut voters support decriminalizing pot by 65-32 percent. A national Pew poll found 45 percent of Americans support going a step further by legalizing it.
But according to Ginger Katz of Norwalk, whose son Ian Eaccarino died of a drug overdose in college in 1996, this is not your parent’s pot. She said it’s 10 to 20 times stronger than it was in 1960s and ’70s.
“Pot for many children is a dangerous drug and now it will become more available as a result, and teenagers may misunderstand what decriminalization is,” said Katz, who is CEO and founder of The Courage To Speak Foundation. “By lowering the penalty this could justify use when it becomes just a slap on the wrist. It’s a problem because more kids are in treatment for marijuana than all other drugs together. Marijuana now is much stronger than it was. There are studies stating that brains are not fully developed until the age of 24.”
Some legislators agree with Katz’s assessment.
“The decriminalization of marijuana sends a message to our young people and can inevitably increase its use and create higher costs to treatment,” said state Sen. Toni Boucher (R-26th), who voted against decriminalization. “I have received calls from high school teachers that kids are already joking about it, and they are furious.”
Not far enough
Still others think decriminalization doesn’t go far enough.
“Pot should be all-out legalized,” said Lisa Torres of Bridgeport. “When we look back we see how it became illegal in the first place to support the alcohol trade with a deal made by Al Capone. Even George Washington was a hemp farmer. And it wasn’t just for smoking — they made stuff with it. Henry Ford made a car out of hemp. It was quite strong actually. I think there is a movie of him smashing it with a sledge hammer somewhere.”
Should the state go all the way and legalize the weed?
“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” concluded. Duff. “We should wait to see the outcome of decriminalization.”