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Connecticut’s lawmakers voted on Tuesday to make Connecticut the 14th state to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana, and Governor Dannel P. Malloy has promised to sign the bill.
After about three hours of debate, it passed the House 90 to 57. Over the weekend, the 18-18 tie in the state Senate had been broken by Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman, her first and only vote during the session, reports Mary E. O’Leary at the New Haven Register.
Supporters argued that treating the possession of less than a half-ounce of marijuana as in infraction with a $150 fine, rather than as a criminal misdemeanor, will free up prosecutors, public defenders, probation officers and other court officials to deal with serious crime.
Connecticut is only the second state to enact decrim legislatively in the past decade, according to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). (Massachusetts enacted a similar law via ballot initiave in 2009.)
The fine would increase to from $200 to $500 for subsequent marijuana possession offenses, with referral to a drug education program after the third violation. Offenders under age 21 will also lose their driver’s license for 60 days, and juveniles 16 and under will be referred to juevenile court.
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|Gov. Dannel Malloy: “Final approval of this legislation accepts the reality that the current law does more harm than good”
Governor Malloy on Tuesday released a statement applauding final passage of the bill.
“Final approval of this legislation accepts the reality that the current law does more harm than good — both in the impact it has on people’s lives and the burden it places on police, prosecutors and probation officers of the criminal justice system,” Malloy said.
The governor said the new law does not legalize marijuana, but the modification recognizes “that the punishment should tit the crime.” This puts Connecticut in line with neighboring New York and Massachusetts, as well as 12 other states.
While about 10,000 marijuana arrests were made in Connecticut in 2010, only about 20 people were jailed, usually in combination with a more serious crime, according to the Register.
The administration estimated that at least 2,000 arrests out of 10,000 were for small amounts of pot, tying up the courts unnecessarily with 4,800 pleading guilty and hurting future employment and other opportunities because of a criminal record.
A study by the nonpartisan Office of Legal Research found “significantly reduced expenses” for court costs for those states that decriminalized small amounts of the drugs.
The latest Qunnipiac Poll showed 65 percent of Connecticut residents favored decriminalizing small amounts of pot, while 79 percent were in favor of medical marijuana.
State Majority Leader Brendan Sharkey (D-Hamden) said a punitive response for the past several decades has failed to curb use of marijuana. Sharkey added that in at least one country, Portugal, usage among young people dropped dramatically after decrim.
Predictably, opposition to the bill was led by hidebound Republicans who claimed it “sends the wrong message” to “young people.”
State Rep. Themis Klarides (R-Derby) claimed the discussion was intellectually dishonest.
“It is either a danger or it is not,” Klarides said, claiming that a half-ounce cutoff is arbitrary. “These are not sound policy decisions for legislators in this state to make,” she sniffed.
State Rep. John Hetherington (R-New Caanan) claimed marijuana usage in the United States is “21st century American colonialism” that lets other countries like Mexico deal with the violence of the drug trade that ships marijuana here. (He really should read something about marijuana that was written since the 1970s, don’t you think? Hello, domestic cultivation!)
Lost for this legislative session is a proposed medical marijuana bill, championed by state Rep. Penny Bacchiochi (R-Somers) for almost a decade. She has testified on many occasions that marijuana was the only drug that allowed her first husband to eat when he was suffering from terminal cancer.
“Frankly, I’m sick and tired of hearing the reasons why this bill won’t be heard,” Bacchiochi said. “We need to take it seriously. People need this protection.”
While medical marijuana passed several committees, opposition arose to monitoring the cannabis plants allowed to be grown by patients with certain diseases and a doctor’s recommendation. They could each have four plants, no higher than four feet.
A proposal to set up a distribution center stalled because of recent threats and stepped-up enforcement from federal officials.
Medical marijuana passed the Connecticut Legislature in 2007, but was vetoed by Republican M. Jodi Rell, who was then Governor.