State officials agreed Monday that no one goes to jail for possession of marijuana, but not everyone at the public hearing was in favor of decriminalizing small amounts of cannabis.
The proposal to decriminalize small amounts of pot was pitched by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and was one of several marijuana bills discussed at a Judiciary Committee public hearing Monday.
Michael Lawlor, Malloy’s undersecretary for criminal justice issues, asked the committee to consider decriminalization and medicinal usage with an eye toward keeping non-violent drug offenders out of the system in order to save the state money.
Under the governor’s bill, someone charged with possessing less than one ounce of marijuana would face an infraction, punishable by a $100 fine.
Currently, it’s a misdemeanor, punishable by a $1,000 fine and up to one year in jail. Malloy believes the state is wasting resources on these cases, a point he made in his budget address on Feb. 16.
“Everyone who is arrested for small amounts of marijuana ends up with a dismal of the charges,” he said. “The problem is that to get to that outcome there’s quite a bit of resources devoted to the process involved.”
Typically offenders are arrested, processed through criminal court, they can have a public defender appointed and return for two or three court appearances before being allowed into diversionary programs, Lawlor said. From there they report to the office of adult probation, jump through a variety of hoops and appear in court again six months or a year later when their charges are dismissed, he said.
The process requires the criminal justice system to devote significant resources to the enterprise despite the fact that there’s no evidence it lowers the rate of marijuana usage, Lawlor said.
“If it worked, this would be an entirely different discussion. But it doesn’t appear to work,” he said.
A 2010 legislative research report attempted to analyze how much in law enforcement resources have been saved by decriminalizing the substance in other states. The report cited a study by a Harvard University professor who estimated Massachusetts will save $29.5 million in resources.
But Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, said he felt the current system and its diversionary programs could be enough to get people to think twice about continuing to use marijuana.
“It just makes sense to me that for some folks the program and that initial taste of what it’s like to be in the judicial system is enough to get folks not to continue with marijuana or do it in a way where they’re not in the system anymore,” he said.
But Lawlor said studies show that state legislation doesn’t seem to have an effect on marijuana usage.
In every state, almost regardless of what public policy the state adopts, the number of people who report using marijuana doesn’t change, he said.
“It doesn’t seem like the criminal justice response to this problem, the use of marijuana by people, it doesn’t seem to have an impact on the extent to which people use it, experiment with it, or are able to obtain it,” he said.
Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane argued that the diversionary programs are in fact working. In this area, the criminal justice system functions as a social safety net, Kane said. Sometimes small possession charges lead to diversionary programs that help people who may not normally receive help, he said.
“Those are things that wouldn’t be done if all they had to do is mail in an infraction and I think the legislature should consider that,” he said.
While he opposed the measure, Kane agreed with Lawlor in that few people charged with possession of the substance actually end up going to prison. In almost every case where possession of small amounts of marijuana is the principal charge, there were other circumstances contributing to their prison time, he said.
The circumstances could include a plea bargain, where the defendant is given possession as an alternative to a more serious charge, he said.
Kane also pointed out that the measure to decriminalize the substance didn’t include an age distinction. So the same penalty could apply for both a minor and an adult caught possessing marijuana. Proponents of decriminalization seemed to agree setting an age limit of of 21 would be acceptable.
The committee also heard testimony on a measure that would allow for the use of medical marijuana by people suffering from certain debilitating conditions.
Rep. Penny Bacchiochi, R-Somers, spoke in support of the bill and told a personal story of her late husband, who died of bone cancer. Over the course of his illness, her ex-husband lost over 80 pounds due to chemotherapy and radiation, she said. After he had tried all the available medications to no avail, Bacchiochi said a doctor pulled her aside and recommended he try marijuana.
“That was the beginning of a very long journey that has brought me here before you today,” she told the committee.
Since that time, close to a thousand people throughout the state have contacted her and encouraged her to do everything she could to help legalize medical marijuana, she said.
Bacchiochi said much has changed since 2007, when Rell vetoed an almost identical bill passed by the legislature to allow the practice. The American Medical Association has changed its position that there was no medical use for the substance and said it required more research.
Also, a recent Quinnipiac University poll has found that over 70 percent of Connecticut residents support “the compassionate use of medical marijuana under a doctor’s supervision,” she said.
Later the committee heard from Lindsey Beck, 26, of Voluntown who has Crohn’s disease. Beck said that she’s also been diagnosed with cervical cancer, post traumatic stress syndrome, and Fibromyalgia. Over the course of her treatment she has been on many different legal medications to deal with her symptoms, including medication that has all the same effects as heroin, she said.
Beck said the medication caused her to spend two years of her life almost completely incapacitated. After deciding to give up her legal medication “cold turkey,” she said she had withdrawal symptoms for almost a month. Now Beck said she smokes marijuana as an alternative, but said she lives in fear of having to face legal trouble because of it.
“I’m here today to ask you something that most would never have to ask. Please allow me to have some quality to my life,” she said, her hands shaking. “I can accept the hand that I’ve been dealt. All I want is to be allowed to at least try to live it with some dignity and substance.”
Beck said she understands that there is opposition to the bill but said the time would be better spent battling the pharmaceutical companies that use narcotics as their main weapon against pain.
“I will never comprehend the individual who tells me that I can take all the opiates they prescribe but the joint I smoke is dangerous,” she said.
As Beck was testifying, Sen. Toni Boucher, R- Wilton, held a press conference on the floor below opposing both measures. In 2009, Boucher led a half-hour filibuster against a similar measure to decriminalize marijuana.
Boucher said that studies have shown that use of marijuana suppresses the immune system, could cause heart problems, and is dangerous to people suffering from AIDS or cancer.
“In addition to marijuana’s unsuitability as medicine, classifying marijuana as medicine creates the false impression that it is benign and increases its use,” Boucher later told the Judiciary Committee.
Bacchiochi, who sat in on part of Boucher’s press conference, said she agrees with many of the points her colleague presented.
“I don’t think that smoking marijuana is healthy. But what I don’t think they’re looking at is the type of people I’m trying to protect are very sick and they’re looking for relief today. They’re not looking at what their general health is going to be 20 years from now,” she said.