Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman used her tie-breaking vote for the first time Saturday to win Senate passage of a bill significantly decreasing the penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana. The bill, which is backed by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, now goes to the House, where its prospects are uncertain.
“Time’s running short, we have a lot of important matters before us,” House Speaker Christopher Donovan, D-Meriden, said. “We’re doing a tally to see what the support is… I think there is some support.”
Possession of any amount of marijuana in Connecticut currently can result in a fine of up to $1,000 and a criminal record on the first offense. The bill the Senate approved Saturday evening would carry a $150 fine and no criminal record for those caught with a half-ounce or less. After the first offense the fine would be between $200 and $500.
Backers of the bill said it would allow law enforcement to shift priorities to more important matters.
“This would free up court time, probation officer time, police time, to focus on the much more serious stuff,” said Malloy’s chief criminal justice adviser, Michael Lawlor.
They also argue that the lower penalties for small amounts of marijuana–roughly 30 joints by their estimate–will still deter use as much the current penalties do.
Sen. Eric D. Coleman, D-Bloomfield and co-chairman of the legislature’s Judiciary Committee, said the current penalties don’t deter use. What they do is saddle people caught with a small amounts of marijuana with a criminal record that harms their job, education and military opportunities.
Republicans disagreed, saying the measure will lead to increased use.
Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, said people who have chosen not to use marijuana because they feared criminal prosecution will now think, “I’ve always wanted to use marijuana; now it’s only an infraction.”
“This recreational use may initiate an onset dependency,” said Sen. Toni Boucher, R-Wilton. “Marijuana use is on the rise.” She called the change “very dangerous.”
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.
The Malloy Administration estimates 2,000 people are currently caught each year with small amounts of marijuana and 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 Kissel said the health and education costs associated with increased use will more then make up for any savings.
Though possession of less than 4 ounces of marijuana is currently a misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in prison, most offenders apply for and are accepted into accelerated rehabilitation, drug treatment or community service programs that preclude any jail time, Lawlor said. In addition, once the rehab or service period has ended, the offender’s criminal record is wiped clean.
Lawlor, a former lawmaker and longtime co-chairman of the Judiciary Committee, predicted offenders would be still be deterred by the $150 fine, and those under age 21 also would face a 60-day suspension of their driver’s license.
The license suspension will deter young people more then the current law does, Coleman predicted.
“Decriminalizing the use and possession of small amounts of marijuana is
a better course and in the best interest of young people,” he said.
All 14 Republicans voted against the bill, as did Democrats Joan Hartley, Gayle Slossberg, Paul Doyle and Edward Meyer, resulting in an 18-18 tie. Wyman, who as lieutenant governor is presiding officer of the Senate, broke the tie in favor of the bill, her first exercise of the power since taking office in January.