Party lines seemed of little relevance in a 90-57 vote as the House gave final passage to a bill that will decriminalize small amounts of marijuana. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle weighed questions like whether the bill sends the wrong message to children and what role the government should play the life choices of its citizenry.
The bill will make possession of less than a half ounce of marijuana a violation rather than an arrestable crime. People cited for possessing cannabis would be fined $150 for the first offense and between $200 and $500 for the second.
Rep. Robert Sampson, R-Wolcott, said some bills that come before the legislature are black and white issues where the decision is easy to make. He said the decriminalization measure fell in a grey area.
“Even right now as I stand in this chamber talking about it I don’t know how I’m going to vote. I think it’s the first time that’s happened,” he told his colleagues.
Sampson said he considers himself fairly libertarian when comes to these issues. Marijuana is a plant that grows in the ground, not a chemical made in a factory somewhere, he said, noting some Native American groups have long had a tradition of using it. The government shouldn’t necessarily be dictating what free men and women do with it, he said.
But the other side of being a conservative is not wanting to dismantle the status quo, he said. Marijuana laws have been in place for quite some time and folks are hesitant to see them change, he said. His biggest concern was how the law applies to minors.
Under the measure minors caught possessing the substance would automatically be referred to the juvenile court system, where they would have to appear with their parents. People under 21 caught in possession of marijuana would automatically have their drivers licenses revoked for 150 days.
Sampson said he had no urge to vote on the bill. He said there was no right answer, only two wrong answers. He said debating full legalization would be one thing but described the bill at hand as a half measure. He said he didn’t believe it would change that much even if it passed.
But his constituents didn’t see it that way, he said. He spent part of Tuesday answering emails advocating both sides of the issue. And many of the people who felt compelled to speak out don’t seem to have a clear understanding of what the bill would accomplish.
He said on one hand supporters of the measure seem to think the bill would legalize cannabis, which it does not. On the other hand opponents seem to think the bill amounts to the legislature handing out marijuana to school children, he said.
As late as four hours into the debate, Sampson said he still hadn’t made up his mind.
“The question is are we ready yet? I don’t know that we’re ready to pass this law just yet,” he said.
He wasn’t the only lawmaker sitting on the fence as it was discussed on the floor. Rep. Brenda Kupchick, R-Fairfield, also said she didn’t yet know which button she would press when the measure came down to the vote. She said she was torn between allowing people to live their lives as they see fit and sending the right message to the state’s youth.
“I do believe in individual liberty. So much so that I think the government is way too involved in our lives,” she said.
The two lawmakers ultimately joined nine other Republicans to support the measure. Other lawmakers were firmly on one side or the other before the debate began.
Rep. Chris Coutu, R-Norwich, believed changing the laws regarding cannabis may convince some young people wouldn’t have gone near cannabis to give it a try. He said the fine is, in some cases, less than a speeding ticket.
He said everyone knows someone who seemed promising but became a “pot head.” Lessening the penalty will make people more inclined to try the substance, setting them down that path, he said. The law as it currently is serves a purpose, he said.
“Just the threat [of doing prison time] deters kids from doing drugs,” he said.
But Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield, D-New Haven, said that rhetoric regarding what message passage of the bill would send to children was beside the point.
“Since when did we start worrying about that?” he asked. What message should children take from several school bills that the legislature hasn’t acted on, he said.
“People in the communities are asking when we’re going to deal with this issue,” he said.
Thousands of people are arrested every year for possession of marijuana but only around 20 are actually in prison strictly for that crime, he said. What is the point of spending money arresting and prosecuting thousands of people when they’re not actually going to prison, he said.
Following the bill’s passage Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who included the measure in his legislative recommendations, issued a statement lauding the House’s decision.
“Final approval of this legislation accepts the reality that the current law does more harm than good – both in the impact it has on people’s lives and the burden it places on police, prosecutors and probation officers of the criminal justice system,” he said. Malloy said he wanted to be clear that the bill’s passage does not mean the state is legalize cannabis.