Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney (D–New Haven) introduced a bill this month that would decriminalize the possession of marijuana in the state of Connecticut. If passed, Gov. Dan Malloy would sign the legislation, claiming explicitly that he believes “possession of marijuana in small amounts should be decriminalized.” A 2009 Quinnipiac poll found that 58 percent of Conn. voters would support such a bill.
It’s about time we stop thinking about marijuana legislation as controversial. Categorical stigmatization of responsible drug policies is unproductive. This state — and this country — should reassess our outdated prohibitions and rise above stereotypes to examine one of our nation’s most needless social injustices.
Connecticut would be far from the first state to adopt such a law. In fact, we’re a long way behind our progressive neighbors when it comes to marijuana policy. Thirteen states — including New York, Massachusetts, California, Ohio and Mississippi — have passed decriminalization laws. Indeed, Connecticut has attempted to pass decriminalization before: bills were introduced during both the 2009 and 2010 sessions and a medical marijuana bill even passed in 2007, only to be vetoed by then-Governor Rell.
As it stands, a first time possession of any “useable” amount of marijuana or any kind of “paraphernalia” is punishable under Connecticut law by a $1,000 fine and up to a year in prison. The new bill would reduce the charge to an infraction and civil fine — much like a parking ticket.
The fact that mere possession of marijuana merits a year in prison, while alcohol is freely consumed and sold throughout the state, is astounding. Myriad studies have shown that marijuana is both less harmful and less addictive than legal substances including alcohol and tobacco. Of course, decriminalization opponents argue that a reduction in penalties would result in increased use. On the contrary, the only U.S. government study ever commissioned to assess the question found that “decriminalization has had virtually no effect either on the marijuana use or on related attitudes and beliefs about marijuana use among American young people.” Connecticut representatives should legislate based on a substance’s true harm — not on illogical fear-mongering.
A recent report by the Connecticut Law Revision Commission confirmed these statistics, claiming “there was a greater increase in marijuana use in states that continue to treat possession as crime than in states that treated it as a civil offense” and that “easing the penalties for marijuana did not lead to a substantial increase in the use of either alcohol or hard drugs.” These statistics counter the claim that decriminalization will implicitly support criminals involved in the drug trade. Though decriminalization will not shut down criminal activity associated with drug trafficking, it will certainly not advance it. Obviously, financing drug trafficking is wrong. Decriminalization, however, would not increase drug sales, and thus would not increase support for the illicit drug market.
Moreover, the bill carries persuasive fiscal benefits. Decriminalization would save the state $3.8 million and local enforcement agencies $26.2 million. Savings would arise in the Department of Public Safety, Division of Criminal Justice, municipal law enforcement, Public Defender Services Commission, and the Judicial Department — enabling the reallocation of valuable resources to investigating and preventing more serious crimes. In 2007, nearly 5 percent of arrests in Connecticut would have been eliminated under the new bill — 76 percent of them were for possession of less than half an ounce. We need to stop letting marijuana offenders clog up our courts and prisons, taking time and money away from our overbooked and underfunded criminal justice system.
Furthermore, a vast majority of those arrested are African Americans or other racial minorities. Decriminalization is not just fiscally intelligent, but a civil rights imperative. Only 13 percent of illegal drug users are African American, yet they make up 67 percent of those sent to prison for drug offenses.
It is for all of these reasons that the Yale College Democrats’ Lobbying Committee voted to advocate for the Conn. Decriminalization bill this legislative season. This is not a question of legalization. This is not a question of making Yalies feel better while they partake in illicit activity. Such characterizations are unproductive. Is smoking marijuana harmful? Yes. But that does not mean it should be punishable by imprisonment — both on principle and on economic pragmatism.
Our Senate majority leaders supports it; our governor supports it; our public supports it. When our lobbying efforts on the CT DREAM Act and Death Penalty Repeal conclude in March, the time will come to show Connecticut’s legislators why our state’s marijuana laws are unjust and unsound. I look forward to our work ahead.
Marina Keegan is a junior in Saybrook College and the president of the Yale College Democrats.