State considers marijuana decriminalization

Connecticut may be the next state to decriminalize possession of up to an ounce of marijuana.

While recent efforts to decriminalize marijuana in Connecticut have failed, State Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney is reviving his 2009 effort to do so. Looney, a Democrat who represents much ofNew Haven and Hamden, has introduced a bill in the state legislature that would change possession of up to one ounce of marijuana from a misdemeanor to an infraction punishable by a fine. The bill will likely face strong opposition by Republicans and some Democrats, but it has at least one crucial ally: newly elected Gov. Dannel Malloy.

While Malloy did not mention the word “marijuana” in his speech to the state legislature last week, he did hint that he believes the time for decriminalization has come.

“There are simply too many people who’ve been arrested and jailed for minor, non-violent or drug offenses, who if given access to an alternative form of punishment, would take advantage of that additional chance to choose a different and better path,” Malloy said. “This new policy will save us millions of dollars, which is a benefit of a more enlightened policy whose time I think has come.”

Calling incarceration for minor possession of marijuana a waste of the state’s resources, Ward 1 Alderman Michael Jones ’11 said he supports decriminalization of up to an ounce of marijuana. In addition to being costly to the state, Jones said, current state law unnecessarily burdens people with a permanent criminal record.

DOLLARS AND CENTS

The state’s fiscal troubles provide an opportunity for decriminalization supporters.

Looney said he believes that given the state’s struggles to address a $3.6 billion budget deficit, the cost-saving benefit of marijuana decriminalization may make it more likely to succeed this year. Incarceration is expensive, he added, and the fines would generate revenue for the state. Furthermore, converting possession into an infraction eliminates the requirement for the state to appoint a public defender for defendants who cannot afford counsel, Looney said.

A 2009 report by the Capitol’s Office of Fiscal Analysis found that there were were 9,928 marijuana arrests in Connecticut in 2007. About a third of those arrests were for possession of less than an ounce. Decriminalization could save the state up to $11 million and generate $320,000 annually in revenue from fines, the report said. Looney said he is awaiting an updated report, but does not know when new data will be available.

In 2009, the Judiciary Committee of the State Legislature approved a bill that would decriminalize up to half an ounce of marijuana, also introduced by Looney, but the bill died after Sen. Toni Boucher filibustered it.

Looney said Malloy’s indication of support for decriminalization will give the bill political momentum in Hartford.

Public opinion about marijuana laws has shifted in recent years, Looney said, citing Massachusett’s ballot referendum in 2008 that succeeded in making it the 12th state to decriminalize minor marijuana possession.

According to a 2009 Quinnipiac University poll, 58 percent of Connecticut voters approve of decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana. The margin was 68 to 30 percent among Democrats and 58 to 35 percent among Independents. Republicans disapproved 51 to 44 percent.

A bill legalizing medical marijuana is also pending before state legislators. That bill has a greater likelihood of passage than the decriminalization of non-medical marijuana, Looney said.

Former Republican Gov. Jodi Rell vetoed a bill that would have legalized medical use of marijuana in 2007. The bill narrowly passed both houses of the General Assembly.

FIERCE DEBATE LIKELY

But Republicans in Hartford are likely to pose a serious threat to decriminalization.

After Boucher led the filibuster that killed the 2009 decriminalization bill, she said she felt strongly that the state should not change its laws on marijuana. Making possession of marijuana an infraction sends children the message that the drug is more benign than tobacco, Boucher said.

One of the most vocal opponents of decriminalization this year has been State Senate Minority Leader John McKinney of Fairfield. McKinney, a Republican, told the Hartford Advocate last week he thinks Republican opposition will be fierce.

“It sends a horrible message to high school students and college students,” McKinney said. “I can’t imagine marijuana usage going down if we decriminalize it.”

Looney said he sees the issue as fundamentally one of fairness.

“We need to recognize that people shouldn’t be saddled with a permanent criminal record for a small amount of marijuana,” Looney said. “It really is a blight on someone’s prospects.”

Ward 29 Alderman and President of the Board of Aldermen Carl Goldfield argued that drugs should be dealt with as a health matter, not a criminal matter. Alcohol is more dangerous than marijuana, Goldfield added.

Looney’s decriminalization bill will first be heard by the State Legislature’s Judiciary Committee. A hearing date has not been scheduled yet, Looney said.

Comments