Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Judiciary Committee Votes To Decriminalize Marijuana

By Christopher Keating
March 31, 2009 9:31 PM

On a ground-breaking vote, the legislature's judiciary committee voted Tuesday night to decriminalize marijuana possession for adults 18 and older who have less than one-half of an ounce of the drug.

Under a compromise, the marijuana laws would not change for anyone under 18, and the amount that would be decriminalized was reduced from less than one ounce to less than one half of an ounce. The possession of small amounts would no longer be a crime and would instead be an infraction that could be paid like a speeding ticket.

Some Democratic legislators, including Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney of New Haven, have been pushing hard this year for decriminalization, saying that doing so could save the state more than $11 million in law enforcement costs annually because far fewer people would be sent to state Superior Court to be overseen by prosecutors and probation officials. If marijuana users were issued a ticket that could be paid by mail, they would no longer need to go to court.

The bill passed by 24 to 14 in the Democratic-dominated committee, and the highest-ranking Republican who voted for the measure was deputy House Republican leader William Hamzy of Plymouth.

Despite the positive vote Tuesday night, the bill still faces an uphill battle as Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell opposes the decriminalization. Rell had vetoed a bill two years ago that would have allowed for the use of marijuana for medical purposes to relieve pain.

"Whether it's little or a lot, it is an illegal substance, and the governor does not support the bill,'' Rell's spokesman, Christopher Cooper, said Tuesday night after the vote.

Cooper noted that the committee vote does not guarantee that the bill would be approved by the full House and Senate. "It may never reach her desk,'' he said.

Nationwide, 22 states have passed some form of decriminalization. One of the most recent was Massachusetts, where people are assessed a civil fine of $100 instead of being charged with a crime.

House Republican leader Lawrence Cafero of Norwalk spoke strongly against changing the law, saying that he has seen drugs ruin numerous lives during the past 16 years that he has served as the expulsion officer for the Norwalk public schools. High-achieving students who once received grades of As and Bs in their classes often fall to Cs and Ds after they have become regular marijuana smokers, Cafero said.

"I've seen kids who are getting high at 7 in the morning, sometimes at 12 years old,'' Cafero told the committee. "It ruins a lot of lives. It ruins a lot of families. ... It's not a matter of efficiency. It's not a matter of money. It's a matter of lives.''

He also reminded middle-aged legislators that they should know that marijuana today is far more potent than the drug that was available in the 1970s.

"What is the message that we as a legislature will send when we decriminalize marijuana?'' Cafero asked. "That sends a wrong message.''

If the bill becomes law, a person driving 80 miles per hour on the Merritt Parkway would receive a bigger fine than the same person who was possessing 15 marijuana joints, Cafero said.

Later in the debate, Sen. Edwin Gomes said that the speeder is creating more of a risk to society, based on the number of accidents on the road.

"That person who is speeding should be fined more than someone who has less than a half ounce of marijuana because he is more of a hazard to the public,'' said Gomes, a Bridgeport Democrat.

Sen. John Kissel, the ranking Senate Republican on the committee, said he does not believe that possession of marijuana should be equated to the level of a parking ticket.

"I don't know where we are going as a state,'' Kissel said. "Fundamentally, I think it sets us on exactly the wrong path.''

Rep. Ernest Hewett, a New London Democrat who supported the bill, said it is essentially impossible to stop someone if they want to smoke marijuana.

"I think alcohol is the real problem. We're just disregarding that,'' Hewett said. "I do agree with Representative Cafero on one thing. This stuff starts at home.''


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