Possession of small amounts of marijuana will soon no longer be a crime in Connecticut.
After five hours of debate, legislators in the state House of Representatives gave final passage today to a bill that reduces the penalty for possessing less than an ounce of marijuana from a misdemeanor to an infraction. In a statement, Gov. Dannel Malloy promised to sign the legislation, which passed by a vote of 90 to 57.
“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 in the statement.
While some of the bill’s opponents argued that it paves the way for full legalization of marijuana, Malloy stressed that decriminalization does not make the drug legal. Still, he said, “the punishment should fit the crime.”
A first offense for possession of less than an ounce of marijuana carries possible jail time and fines starting at $1000 under the current law.
Under the new law, the fine for a first offense for possession of up to half an ounce of marijuana is $150, while 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.
With the change in penalties, Malloy said, state law enforcement will be more effectively utilized by placing a higher priority on more dangerous offenses than possession of small amounts of marijuana.
Still, State Sen. Toni Boucher (R-Wilton) said in a statement on her website that decriminalization sends the wrong message to the state’s youth about the risks of marijuana use.
“What kind of message does this send to our children?” Senator Boucher said in the statement. “This law undermines a fundamental lesson that our schools, social service programs and parents teach our children: that taking drugs is bad for you.”
Before the State Senate sent the legislation to the House, Boucher, the most vocal opponent of decriminalization in the legislature, won the inclusion of an amendment that requires repeat offenders to be referred to drug education after a second offense and treatment programs after a third offense.
Some opponents of the bill argued that it was unnecessary, given that most of the approximately 7,000 people in the state arrested each year for possession of less than an ounce of marijuana complete a program that allows their criminal records to be erases. But supporters of the bill argued that because the records of arrests are public, the current law places an undue burden on offenders which will stay with them forever.
The current law “stigmatiz[es] them in a way we would not if they were caught drinking underage,” Malloy said.
Once Malloy signs the legislation, Connecticut will become the eighth state to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana. Another six states have explicitly eliminated the possibility of jail time for a first offense while continuing to classify it as a misdemeanor.