Possession of any amount of marijuana in Connecticut now can result in a criminal record and up to a $1,000 fine–but members of the Judiciary Committee voted to change that Tuesday night.
Under terms of a bill the committee approved, getting caught with a half-ounce or less–which committee members said is about 30 marijuana joints–would carry a $100 fine and no criminal record.
“Anything less is for personal use,” said Sen. Eric D. Coleman, D-Bloomfield, co-chair of the committee. “I don’t think the future… should be jeopardized by charges incurred by them for possession of small amounts of marijuana.”
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy had originally proposed decriminalizing possession of up to one ounce. The measure approved Tuesday reduced the limit to a half-ounce, but backers said it would still save money and free up the courts to deal with violent offenders.
“This proposal is just saying, let’s save all that hassle. These offenses do take up a lot of time and effort in the court system,” said Michael Lawlor, a senior adviser to Malloy and former chairman of the Judiciary Committee.
Lawlor said the proposal will save the state “multi-millions” by not having an estimated 2,000 offenders who are caught each year with small amounts of marijuana brought into the justice system. The legislature’s non-partisan research office reported that states that have reduced penalties for possession have “significantly reduced expenses” for arrests and prosecution.
But Republicans on the committee said decriminalization of even small amounts of pot is a bad idea.
“If you decrease deterrence you will increase use,” said Rep. John W. Hetherington, the ranking Republican on the committee.
In 10 of the 13 states where decriminalization has taken place, marijuana use exceeds the national average, according to a report by the Office of Legislative Research.
“This is unconscionable to me,” said Sen. John Kissel, the Ranking Senate Republican of the committee. “This bill is essentially saying… ‘Just don’t carry too much of it and you should be OK’… It’s a slap on the wrist.”
But Coleman said existing penalties don’t deter casual marijuana use, and it’s wrong to impose criminal records on the users.
“I don’t want [their] opportunities to be thwarted,” he said.
A similar proposal was voted out of the Judiciary Committee in 2009, but former Gov. M. Jodi Rell promised to veto it so the General Assembly never voted on the bill. This year, the proposal is backed by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and the public. A recent Quinnipiac University poll found 65 percent of those surveyed support decriminalizing the drug.