Connecticut legislators have voted to join eight other states in making possession of small amounts of marijuana a low-level offense that will no longer saddle violators with a lifelong criminal record.
“Many of us do struggle with this issue as we try to do the right thing. … But there’s a difference between a few joints and four ounces,” said Rep. Gerald M. Fox, the co-chairman of the legislature’s Judiciary Committee.
The House debated nearly five hours before passing the measure by a 90-57 vote. The tally had been closer in the Senate, where Lt. Gov. Nancy S. Wyman broke an 18-18 tie last week. Dannel P. Malloy–a former prosecutor in New York who has dealt with a son’s arrest for marijuana possession and distribution–has promised to sign the measure into law.
Malloy has acknowledged he had wished the bill had gone a little bit further. Malloy had originally proposed decriminalizing possession up to an ounce — which would have been in line with the other states that have made the move in recent years.
Michael Lawlor, the Administration’s chief criminal justice adviser, said the amount was lessened to a half-ounce to guarantee the bill’s passage and ensure it was only decriminalizing personal usage.
But Republicans in both chambers said even a half an ounce is too much.
“I find that arbitrary… Why did we pick a half an ounce?” asked Rep. Dan Carter, R-Bethel. He said the effects of the drug depend on the potency of the drug and not the weight. “It doesn’t make sense.”
Fox said the half-ounce threshold was set as an amount that was more likely to be possessed for personal use only.
Republicans also said those found to be in possession of marijuana for the first time already have the opportunity avoid a criminal record, which is one of the major reason for this bill.
“I believe everyone deserves a second chance, a third chance… You know, that exists under the current law,” said Rep.John W. Hetherington, R-New Canaan. “We don’t need this law.”
The legislature’s Office of Fiscal Analysis estimates about 7,000 people are arrested each year for possessing less than a half ounce, and Lawlor said many of them do complete a program to wipe their record clean upon completion.
But the conviction being on a permanent record is not the only problem, he said.
“In this day and age, the minute you get arrested that’s public record and remains a public record… That’s there forever,” he said. “When employers Google your name that will pop up.”
“Those are records they have to explain the rest of their lives” when applying for jobs, financial aid for college and when attempting to join the military, Fox said. “This [bill] would change that.”
In addition to the seven other states that already have decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana, six other states have eliminated the potential for jail terms for first offenses, but still classify the offense as a misdemeanor.
Backers of the Connecticut bill say the change will allow law enforcement and the courts to shift priorities to more important matters. 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.
Republicans disagree, saying it will lead to increased use. 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.
“There’s a common sense perspective. If there’s a smaller fine they may be tempted,” said Rep. Christopher D. Coutu, D-Norwich. “And some of these children are going to go onto pills and other drugs.”
Monetary savings are another driving factor for Democrats behind the bill. OLR reports that states that have reduced penalties for possession have “significantly reduced expenses” for arrests and prosecution. OFA estimates those savings would be about $885,000 each year.
“This ties up a lot of court time and probation officer time. Why not just have a swift certain punishment and a penalty that fits the crime?” Lawlor asked.