Possession of less than half an ounce of marijuana may soon no longer be a crime in Connecticut.
While the State House of Representatives has yet to vote on it, the Senate passed a bill Saturday that would reduce the penalty for possessing up to half an ounce of marijuana from a crime to an infraction carrying a fine. After Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman, as president of the Senate, broke an 18–18 vote to carry the bill through, Gov. Dannel Malloy hailed it in a press release as an example of “common sense reforms to our criminal justice system.”
While the bill’s opponents in the Senate argued that decriminalizing marijuana sends the wrong message, proponents stressed the damage that young people can incur from a criminal record.
“We are acknowledging the reality that we are doing more harm than good when we prosecute people who are caught using marijuana — needlessly stigmatizing them in a way we would not if they were caught drinking underage, for example, and disproportionately affecting minorities,” Malloy said in the release.
The bill’s most outspoken opponent, Sen. Toni Boucher (R-Wilton) argued in testimony before the Judiciary Committee in March that marijuana poses a threat to the state’s public health by serving as a “gateway” for other drugs and increasing the risk of psychological disorders.
Another reason Malloy, a former prosecutor in Brooklyn, cited for his support of the bill is its potential to free up the state’s criminal justice system to focus on more dangerous crimes.
Malloy stressed that the bill would not legalize marijuana. Under the bill, the fine for a first offense for possession of up to half an ounce of marijuana is $150. Subsequent offenses carry fines ranging from $200 to $500. Similar to the penalty for underage drinking, offenders under 21 could have their driver’s licenses suspended for 60 days.
Still, the bill represents a significant shift in the drug’s legal status. Currently, possession of marijuana is a misdemeanor carrying possible time in jail and fines beginning at $1,000 for a first offense.
The bill now heads to the House for final legislative action.
Correction: June 6, 2011
Due to an editing error, the original headline of this article misstated the status of the bill reducing marijuana possession penalties, which still needs the approval of the state’s House of Representatives in order to become law.