Adult possession of recreational cannabis is now legal in Connecticut and police can no longer use its smell as probable cause to stop a vehicle as the first provisions of a recently-passed law go into effect.
The beginning stages of a 295-page cannabis bill called for the July 1 legalization of small amounts of the long-prohibited substance. People at least 21 years old can now carry up to 1.5 ounces or possess up to 5 ounces in their homes or locked in the glove box or trunk of their vehicles.
For about a decade, possession of small amounts — less than a half ounce — has been decriminalized in Connecticut, meaning it leads to a ticket and a fine rather than an arrest. For a first offense, the fine was $150.
According to statistics from the state judicial branch, the number of small possession charges fluctuated between roughly 3,500 and 4,100 per year from 2017 to 2019. They dropped sharply to 1,345 last year during the coronavirus pandemic.
Some fines will remain under the new law. For instance, an adult 18 to 20 years old can be fined $50 for the first offense of possessing up to 5 ounces. Any adult with more than 5 ounces can receive a $500 ticket on a first offense. Carrying between 1.5 and 5 ounces unsecured can result in a $100 ticket.
The new law leaves some discretion with police officers when dealing with minors. On the first offense, police can let juvenile offenders caught with less than 5 ounces of cannabis off with a written warning or refer them to youth services. On the second offense, that referral is mandatory. A third offense is considered a delinquent act and could result in an arrest.
The law, which was passed two weeks ago, has law enforcement agencies working quickly to adapt. In a memo attached to a training bulletin posted last week by the Connecticut Police Officer Standards and Training Council, Karen Boisvert, an academy administrator, advised agencies on how to go about issuing written warnings to minors.
“To our knowledge, there is no official juvenile form for a written warning. At this time, we recommend using the standard Juvenile summons form, filled in with the statutory citation, and the notation, ‘WRITTEN WARNING – NO APPEARANCE REQUIRED,’” the memo said.
Thursday’s changes will also impact how police interact with motorists when the smell of cannabis is present. The odor is no longer considered probable cause or reasonable suspicion to stop and search a person or their vehicle.
“Any evidence discovered as a result of any stop or search conducted in violation of this section shall not be admissible in evidence in any trial, hearing or other proceeding in a court of this state,” the training bulletin reads.
However, officers can still conduct sobriety tests based on the smell if they reasonably suspect the motorist of driving while impaired.
Much of the new cannabis law will go into effect over time as the state develops a regulatory structure for its retail sale and a social equity council to ensure that communities impacted by the war on drugs benefit from the business created by the new industry.
Commercial retail sales are allowed by the end of next year and at the earliest July 1, 2022. Meanwhile, a provision automatically erasing criminal records of some cannabis-related crimes will be effective as of 2023. It will be about two years before most residents will be legally allowed to grow cannabis plants in their homes. Beginning in July 2023, residents can grow up to six cannabis plants — three mature and three immature — at their residences.