Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman broke a tie vote in the Senate on Saturday to pass a measure that would decriminalize possession of less than a half ounce of marijuana. It was the first time since taking office in January that Wyman has cast a vote. The Lt. Governor, who presides over the Senate, only votes to break a tie.
Backed by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, the bill changes the penalties for marijuana possession to an infraction. But opponents say it sends the wrong message to children and is a step in the direction of legalization.
“Let’s be clear – we are not making marijuana legal and we are not allowing people who use it and get caught to avoid the repercussions,” Malloy said in a statement after the vote. “But we are acknowledging the reality that we are doing more harm than good when we prosecute people who are caught using marijuana — needlessly stigmatizing them in a way we would not if they were caught drinking underage, for example, and disproportionately affecting minorities.”
Malloy’s sentiment on the measure was shared by several lawmakers. But not everyone agreed.
Sen. Toni Boucher, R-Wilton, said the measure sends the wrong message to Connecticut’s youth. She used her son as an example. She said she once asked her son— when he was in his late twenties — whether he had ever tried the substance. He told her that whenever he had the opportunity, her voice was in his head stopping him, she said.
“That spoke to me about the enormous influence we have at sending a strong message. I would maintain that having a government policy sending a strong message is one of the most powerful, except for a parent,” she said.
Sen. Eric Coleman, D-Bloomfield, said it’s likely he and Boucher agree more than they disagree on the matter. But he said the number of young people who experiment with marijuana likely won’t change.
“It’s a question of whether or not we want to continue to expose those young people to the adverse effects of a criminal record,” he said. Criminal charges affect their ability to enroll in colleges, get good jobs, or join the military, Coleman said.
Coleman stressed he did not want to encourage anyone to use marijuana. He said that few, if any, senators have had the experience of living life with criminal record, and yet they are in charge of making the policy that governs criminal justice. He disagreed with the assertion that drugs are the core element of gang activity.
“Drugs are not the core element of gangs. Alienation, disenfranchisement, and despair are the core elements of gangs,” he said.
Coleman said that when the legislature discusses public safety problems, the typical response to is put more money into police budgets. But he said that increasing enforcement doesn’t get at the real problem. The solution for crime is to put money into constructing an economic foundation to create jobs and put people to work in depressed communities, he said.
Michael Lawlor, Malloy’s undersecretary for criminal justice issues, said the governor feels the measure makes the punishment for cannabis possession fit the crime. He said an immediate fine will be a more effective penalty than an elongated and expensive trip through the state’s criminal justice system that, in most cases, results in a dismissal of charges.
“There’s a well established principal in criminal justice policy which is, punishment is much more effective when it’s swift and it’s certain. Under this proposal it’s going to be swift and it’s going to be certain,” Lawlor said. “It’s not severity that matters.”
At least under the proposal people will feel that they have been held accountable, he said, adding that the reality in the court system is that prosecutors have their hands full with severe crimes and don’t view cannabis possession as a serious offense.
“I think everybody would agree we would rather have police and prosecutors focusing on dangerous offenders and predators and much more serious kinds of crime. So it saves a lot of money in that respect,” he said.
Sen. Martin Looney, D-New Haven, who first submitted similar legislation to the legislature, agreed. He said that we are living in a time of scarce resources when the state needs to prioritize where it spends its funds. Crimes like the recent spate of shootings in New Haven should demand more resources, he said.
At the end of more than three hours of debate, Boucher said she wouldn’t be supporting the bill but again thanked the Senate for their work, which she said had made the bill better.
“I may be able to get some sleep tonight for a change,” she said.
Boucher was successful in amending the bill. Her amendment will automatically refer people to a treatment program after the third time they were caught with cannabis. A person cited for the third time would have to pay for the treatment at their own expense. The amendment was adopted by a voice vote.
Boucher, a long-time opponent of easing the laws concerning the substance, thanked her colleagues for supporting her amendment but lamented that the bill would likely be passing the chamber. She said she would have liked to amend the bill again.
“I was hoping that we might be able to reduce the quantity that was discussed in this bill to a third or a quarter of an ounce. However, today I am not going to take the chamber’s time to bring out amendments that don’t really have a chance of passing,” she said.
But the bill passed Saturday has substantial changes from the one passed by the committee.
Instead of between a $30 and $90 fine for the first or second offense, the bill was amended to increase the fine to $150 for the first offense and between $200 and $500 for the second.
It also added a provision that would automatically suspend the drivers licenses of people under 21 caught possessing cannabis. People younger than 18 would be referred to the juvenile court system.
Another provision changed the standard of proof for police officers charging someone with possession. Before the bill was amended, an officer would have had 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. The bill was changed to place that burden on the person charged, who could still plead innocent but would have to pay for the tests at their own expense.