Reeferendum

 

In 2007, the Connecticut legislature passed a bill to legalize the medical use of marijuana in the state, but Gov. Jodi Rell vetoed it. In 2009 and 2010, bills were introduced in the Senate Judiciary Committee that would have substantially reduced the penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana; in ’09 the bill failed because of a filibuster, while in ’10 it died in committee.

Now in 2011, both efforts may end up as law by the time the legislative smoke clears. Gov. Dannel Malloy said during his campaign last year that he would be in favor of legalization of medical marijuana as well as decriminalization, and it’s that support that has proponents believing that pot could be on a roll.

“Of course, the concept is a little bit more familiar, now that it was previously introduced two years ago and that other jurisdictions are moving in that direction also, but one can never predict the likelihood of success this early,” says Sen. Martin Looney (D-New Haven). In January, he introduced Senate Bill No. 163, which would make possession of less than a half-ounce of marijuana an infraction rather than a misdemeanor. That means those caught would be fined (like a motor-vehicle ticket) as opposed to being processed through the criminal-court system.

Looney cites strong public support—a 2009 Quinnipiac Poll showed that 58 percent of Connecticut citizens were in favor of decriminalization. Medical marijuana is legal in 14 other states, and it recently was decriminalized in Massachusetts. Looney says, “I certainly believe it’s worth pursuing again this year because we are wasting an awful lot of criminal justice system resources prosecuting low-level cases involving possession of small amounts of marijuana.”

According to a 2007 report from the Office of Fiscal Analysis, almost one third of marijuana arrests in Connecticut are for possession of less than one ounce. In addition to freeing up court-related resources—in the new bill, the state will not be required to appoint a public defender for each case—revenue would be raised from fines, which could be as much as $250 per violation.

“This bill sends a practical message that we should prioritize serious crimes and pursue those aggressively,” Looney adds.

The legalization of medical marijuana is a slightly different situation. Although there has been general agreement among politicians and medical experts that smoking cannabis can provide relief to those in constant pain from serious illness, no one has come up with a specific plan as to how the state might obtain and dispense seeds to those who are qualified, or how to administer the cultivation and distribution of the narcotic. Marijuana is still an illicit Class 1 drug under federal law, which makes state agencies hesitant to get involved. The University of Connecticut—suggested as a potential official state grower and distributor because of its agricultural resources—has gone on record as stating it is not interested in becoming involved. The use of state facilities and public tax dollars for such operations is also a potential stumbling block.

In addition to those challenges, there are still many who strongly oppose legitimizing marijuana in any form, including state Sen. Toni Boucher (R-Westport), whose aforementioned 2009 filibuster successfully defeated the decriminalization bill. “My concern is the health and the safety of the people in our state,” she says. “I have been surrounded by too many families and classmates of my children who have been touched by drug addiction. It has caused so much pain and suffering. I think we should have a drug-free zone around our state.”

Boucher also supports proposed legislation that would ban the sale and production of synthetic marijuana products such as K2, Spice and Liquid Gold, citing medical studies that detail the harm of smoking pot as well as the concerted efforts of parent coalitions, law-enforcement groups and health-care advocates who continue to fight the war on drugs. She contends that although the legislation might save money and resources for the court system, it would ultimately cost the state’s health-care system more in terms of substance-abuse counseling and medical attention needed to remedy the long-term effects of smoking. “If we are so vitriolic about tobacco use, what is the difference with marijuana?” she asks.

Still, considering significant public and legislative support for the previous cannabis-related initiatives, chances are “high” for passage, especially with the new governor on board.

Reeferendum

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