A controversial bill that would decriminalize possession of less than a half ounce of marijuana cleared the Finance Committee Tuesday afternoon.
If adopted, someone charged with possessing less than a half-ounce of marijuana would face an infraction, punishable by up to $90 for the first offense, and from $200 to $500 on subsequent offenses. Violators would be able to pay the fine by mail without making a court appearance.
Currently, it’s a misdemeanor, punishable by a $1,000 fine and up to one year in jail.
For much of Tuesday’s debate, which lasted less than an hour, Sen. Toni Boucher, R-Wilton, decried the measure as sending a message that possession of marijuana is now a negligible crime. She came to the meeting with three planned amendments and she proposed two of them.
She said that people charged with littering face up to a $250 fine, the same with illegal fishing, or damaging trees on state property.
These all have greater penalties; she told the committee.
She also said the legislature is in the process of approving increased penalties for distracted driving. Her first amendment would have changed the measure so that someone charged with possession of less than a half-ounce of the substance be fined between $100 and $200 for the first offense to put it on par with infractions for other offenses.
“So that at least, Madam Chair, we are saying to the public that it’s as bad as driving distracted,” she said.
But Rep. Edward Moukawsher, D-Groton, said much time has been spent already determining what the appropriate penalty would be.
“I don’t think we should be a party to raising the level because in some way it would equate with driving while distracted,” he said.
Moukawsher said he had recently read a study conducted in Britain regarding the distractibility effect on drivers who have smoked marijuana. That study found the substance did not negatively affect drivers, he said, rather many people drove more carefully.
Boucher disagreed with his assessment, but he wasn’t the only lawmaker to speak against Boucher’s amendment.
Rep. Mary Mushinsky , D-Wallingford, said that if the change Boucher proposed was adopted, a small possession charge would not be an infraction. Someone receiving the charge would still be required to appear in court, she said. That would negate the fiscal note’s anticipated $1.4 million in annual savings to the state Judicial Department, she said.
The amendment failed. Boucher’s second amendment stemmed from her concern that the state has no way of tracking such infractions. The amendment would have required the Public Safety Department to develop a database to track infractions. That database should be available to all police departments, she said.
Under the proposed amendment, money generated from fines would be used to pay off the costs of establishing the database and any additional funds would go to the general found, Boucher said.
An infractions database would be useful for more than enforcing subsequently higher fines on marijuana users, she said. One of the reasons why New York City has become a safe place was due to consistent law enforcement of relatively minor crimes, she said
Sen. Scott Frantz, R-Greenwich, agreed. He compared the proposed tracking system to one used for driving infractions. It is useful for police to know who the dangerous drivers are, he said. Unless the legislature intended to fully legalize the substance, the state still considers possession of marijuana a bad thing and should have a way to keep track of offenders, he said.
Boucher also compared the measure to full legalization. If the legislature wants to send the message that marijuana is acceptable, it may as well legalize it, as “If that’s something we want to do it would be much more honest,” she said.
Rep. Patricia Widlitz, co-chairwoman of the Finance Committee, asked the committee that the discussion be confined to finances, and as a result, Boucher declined to introduce her third amendment. She did, however, raise concerns about what would happen should the federal government decide punish the state for decriminalizing a substance it still considers illegal.
“They’re getting heavier handed on it. I have not seen this in the last few years until just the last few weeks,” she said of the U.S Department of Justice’s stance on marijuana.
Boucher has been a long-time opponent of attempts to decriminalize marijuana in Connecticut. In 2009, she led a tearful filibuster against a similar measure in the same committee. That effort effectively killed the bill.
This year’s bill has the backing of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy who included it as one of his many legislative proposals.
Ultimately the measure passed 31 to 20. It will now return to the Senate calendar.