Changes proposed to two pieces of legislation concerning marijuana may salvage the measures, which some thought did not have the votes to clear the Senate, Sen. Eric Coleman said Wednesday.
The two bills, one concerning the palliative use of cannabis for people with debilitating medical conditions and another decriminalizing small amounts of the substance, have been couched on the Senate calendar. It has been uncertain whether either had enough support to pass the chamber. But Coleman said that may have changed.
“I was worried about both of the bills as early as last week,” Coleman said on the North steps of the state Capitol. “I guess some things have occurred this week, which sort of breathe new life in to the bills.”
That new life may come from proposed amendments.
Throughout the legislative process, opponents of the decriminalization measure have criticized it as being too relaxed. Currently under the bill, someone cited for possessing marijuana would receive a fine of between $30 and $90.
During a debate in the Finance Committee Sen. Toni Boucher, R-Wilton, decried the measure as sending a message that possession of marijuana is now a negligible crime. 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 would all have greater penalties than possessing marijuana if the bill passed, she told the committee. Boucher offered an amendment to increase the fine, which was voted down.
But Coleman said there is a similar amendment in the works now. Under the change, an infraction would carry a fine of $200 on the first offense and $500 on subsequent offenses, he said. The amendment was born from concerns within the Democratic caucus that echo Boucher’s, Coleman said.
“They thought that even if it becomes an infraction, it should be treated a little more seriously than driving without a seatbelt or speaking on a cell phone while driving,” he said.
Another amendment to the measure will change the standard of proof for police officers charging someone with possession. If the crime were changed to infraction, it’s conceivable that people would contest the charges, he said.
Currently under the measure, an officer would have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the person was actually in possession of the substance. That can be a costly process involving laboratory analyses and toxicology reports.
“It would probably suffice to have the police officer who made the citation testify that, based on his experience, the substance that the person cited was in possession of is marijuana,” he said.
A third change to the law will be aimed at juvenile offenders. An existing law dictates that minors caught in possession of alcohol automatically have their drivers licenses revoked.
Coleman said the amendment will apply that same penalty to minors caught possessing small amounts of cannabis.
An amendment is also in the works for the measure allowing for the medical use of marijuana. It would establish a network of dispensaries to grow the substance, Coleman said. Four regional dispensaries would dispense the marijuana to pharmacies or similar establishments where people with prescriptions could obtain the proper dosage, he said.
“Some of my colleagues have expressed some discomfort with having individuals grow their own marijuana,” he said.
The idea of people growing their own marijuana was problematic because it would be impossible to enforce certain requirements of the bill, Coleman said. Under the measure, patients would be allowed to grow four plants in their homes. The plants could be no taller than four feet in height and could yield no more than 4 ounces of marijuana.
Unless you were in someone’s home, there would be no way of knowing what they were growing, he said.
“The network of dispensaries seems to be a good and reasonable alternative,” he said.
Coleman said the bills will have to be raised in Senate within the next few days in order to give the House enough time to debate the measures before the end of the session on June 8.