A bill that would decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana passed the Judiciary Committee 23 to 15 Tuesday evening.
The committee amended the measure to define a small amount of the substance as less than a half ounce. Previously the bill had defined a small amount as less than an ounce.
Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, also proposed two amendments which ultimately failed to be approved by the committee. One amendment would have required minors caught in possession of marijuana to be automatically referred to the state’s drug education program.
The other amendment would have required the Infractions Bureau to keep a record of everyone cited for possession. Kissel said it was important for that information to be easily accessible by police officers since the monetary fine for possession would increase with each citation.
Much of the debate, which lasted about two hours, consisted of opponents of the measure denouncing the idea of decriminalizing the substance as a move which sends the wrong message to the children of the state.
“This bill is essentially saying to young people that the general assembly doesn’t think marijuana is that dangerous anymore, so just don’t carry too much of it and you should be okay,” Sen. Michael McLachlan, R-Danbury, said.
“I wish I could find a way to convince my colleagues on the other side of the aisle that this wrongheaded for Connecticut,” he added
Rep. Themis Klarides, R-Derby, said that the message the legislature was sending was that marijuana use isn’t that bad and suggested they should change the debate to one about full legalization. She added she would not support that measure either. Rep. John Hetherington, R-New Canaan, agreed.
“We have shown a lack of courage. If we’re going to approve of marijuana, let’s just do it,” Hetherington said, also noting it was a bad idea.
Sen. Jason Welch, R-Bristol, said the measure would frame smoking marijuana as a crime as trivial as smoking a cigarette in a public building.
“Currently if you are smoking one cigarette in a public building you’re guilty of an infraction. Everyone who votes yes for this bill is saying that smoking 30 joints is no different than smoking one cigarette in a public building,” he said.
While opponents attacked the bill, its supporters remained largely quiet, until just before the vote when the committee’s chair Sen. Eric Coleman, D-Hartford, responded to the concerns.
Coleman said he agreed that using marijuana is unhealthy. But smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol, having unprotected sex and even eating pork are unhealthy as well, he said.
“No matter how loudly I say don’t do unhealthy things, the reality is people, especially young people, going to try certain things including smoking marijuana,” he said.
But Coleman said people have come forward to tell him that their permanent records have been tarnished due to charges for possessing a small amount of marijuana, he said. Those charges have a detrimental effect on the lives of young people and their future employment prospects, he said.
“I don’t think the future of young people should be jeopardized by charges incurred by possession of small amounts of marijuana,” Coleman said.