After hours of debate Tuesday, the legislature’s Judiciary Committee endorsed a bill which would decriminalize possession of up to half an ounce of marijuana. The vote on the bill was left open, but a preliminary count showed it had enough to pass.
The legislation was amended several times before passage and the amount of marijuana was reduced from one ounce to a half. Further, lawmakers decided that the law should not be applied to anyone under 18 years old, meaning that youth caught with marijuana would still face the misdemeanor charge. But for adults, it would be an infraction with a $250 mail-in fine.
In what is a rare occasion for the legislature, Minority Leader Lawrence Cafero exercised his right as head of the House Republican caucus to be heard before the committee’s vote.
As an school expulsion officer for the city of Norwalk, Cafero said he sees firsthand how marijuana ruins kids’ lives.
“What is the message we as legislators will send to them when we decriminalize marijuana?” Cafero asked. By reducing the penalty for carrying marijuana to what amounts to a speeding ticket, he said the legislature is sending the wrong message.
“It’s not a matter of efficiency or money. It’s a matter of lives,” Cafero told the committee.
Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, said he voted for the medical marijuana bill last year, but can’t vote for this one. He said that when people make a mistake and get caught with marijuana, going through the court procedure “puts the fear of God in them.” He said that a trip to court changes their lives going forward.
“I think if we go down this direction, we will live to regret it,” Kissel said.
Rep. Michael Lawlor, D-East Haven, said that the legislation does not cover drug paraphernalia. So, if the new law were to pass as it was approved Tuesday, police still could charge someone with possession of drug paraphernalia for the baggie that contains the decriminalized marijuana. He said even rolling papers count as drug paraphernalia.
According to Lawlor, the advantage of the bill introduced by New Haven lawmakers Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney and Sen. Toni Harp, is that it gives police and prosecutors the option of resolving a case as an infraction with a fine.
Rep. William Hamzy, R-Terryville, said he was surprised recently when someone showed him—using oregano—how much marijuana equals an ounce. He said that someone could probably get 30 to 60 joints out of an ounce of marijuana.
While Hamzy didn’t have a philosophical problem with people smoking pot in their own living rooms, he said he wanted to increase the fine to $250. At the moment, an infraction can mean a fine of anywhere between $35 to $90.
Lawlor said he just wants to make sure everyone understand that those supporting the bill don’t necessarily condone experimenting or smoking pot. Lawlor told the committee that he’s never smoked marijuana, although he admitted that he’d eaten a brownie laced with marijuana on a dare from a law school roommate many years ago.
Lawlor shared that tidbit during questioning from Sen. Michael McLachlan, R-Danbury, who responded by saying he thought tomorrow’s headlines would be “Michael had the munchies,” to which Lawlor responded, “When you combine it with the brownies, you kill two birds with one stone.”
It was unclear whether Lawlor had intended the pun.
McLachlan was skeptical that the bill would save the state the estimated $11 million included in its fiscal analysis, and he got Lawlor to admit that there probably are not many people incarcerated in Connecticut for possession of small amounts of marijuana. However, Lawlor explained that many pot possession cases are generally pleaded down to infractions anyway, and they clog the court system.
Rep. Ernest Hewett, D-New London, said he wished the committee had more information from states which have already passed similar legislation.
“I think alcohol is the real problem,” Hewett said.
And what does Gov. M. Jodi Rell think?
“The governor opposes illegal drug use and possession,” Rell’s spokesman Rich Harris said Tuesday. “Whether it’s a little or a lot, marijuana is an illegal drug.”
He would not say whether the governor would veto the bill if it reached her desk. He said the governor rarely takes a position on any pending legislation.