Judge: Conn marijuana law having modest impact
By Ed Jacovino boston.com
But it's less clear whether the change has spared the time and resources of police, prosecutors, and courtrooms -- as proponents had predicted.
"This change, to be perfectly candid, it's a modest effect on our court dockets," Judge Robert Devlin said recently. Devlin is the chief administrative judge for criminal matters.
That change comes after the General Assembly made it an $150 infraction to possess up to a half-ounce of marijuana. The law went into effect July 2011.
Before, it was a criminal misdemeanor to possess any amount. The lowest charge was possession of less than 4 ounces of marijuana, which carried a fine of up to $1,000 or a year in prison for the first offense.
These are the most recent figures from the Judicial Department:
-- There were 4,928 charges of possession of less than 4 ounces of marijuana from July 1 to Nov. 30, 2010, according to figures provided by the courts.
-- There were 1,155 charges of possession of between 4 ounces and a half-ounce during the same five months in 2011. That's a decrease of 76.5 percent, or 3,773.
-- 1,965 tickets were issued for possession of less than a half ounce of marijuana during that period in 2011.
The figures show a decrease in the total number of marijuana citations, whether ticket or arrest. But they don't indicate whether decriminalization led to a significant decrease in court activity. That's because many people charged with marijuana possession also face other charges.
When legislators debated the bill in the spring of 2011, supporters contended too much time and money were spent by police and the courts pursuing criminal cases against people found with small amounts of marijuana.
Opponents countered that any savings from the change would be minimal.
Judge Devlin said that when it comes to the numbers, both sides have a point.
Police often will make an arrest for one thing and then find drugs, Devlin said. "On the other hand, there are cases where it's strictly a marijuana charge. It happens both ways."
Michael P. Lawlor, the undersecretary of the Office of Policy and Management for criminal justice policy, pushed for the legislation on behalf of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy. Lawlor's main argument was that it would free up time for police, courts, and the probation system.
The change had the greatest effect on the probation system, he said Monday. That's because after defendants entered a diversionary program they were put on probation, Lawlor said.
He also said the change was aimed at setting priorities for police and prosecutors.
"The message we're trying to send to the entire law enforcement community is we want you to focus on violent crime and serious crime," he said. "There's a lot of stuff that comes through the court system that by anyone's definition is not necessary."
But opponents question whether the lowered penalty made a significant change.
Chief State's Attorney Kevin T. Kane was among the bill's most outspoken opponents. He said he doubted the change would save time for prosecutors.
And, after talking to several prosecutors recently, they agree it hasn't, Kane said.
"They have not noticed any significant decrease in their workload," he said. "A lot of the cases, the people who are charged have other charges too."
Kane also questioned whether people who got a ticket for having marijuana would go to court to challenge it -- some have, and asked that they be put into the diversionary program rather than have the infraction on their records, he said.
And Kane questioned whether it's appropriate policy to simply issue a ticket. Lawmakers usually support the educational programs as a way to prevent people from reoffending, especially when it comes to issues of substance abuse.
The Police Chiefs Association also was skeptical. South Windsor Police Chief Matthew Reed is co-chairman of the group's legislative committee and said police rarely charge someone only with marijuana possession.
"We don't just see somebody standing on the corner smoking some marijuana," he said. "It's always part of another case."
And police officers issuing the new infraction tickets still are taking evidence and writing incident reports. The only time they're saving is in taking fingerprints, Reed said.
He also wondered about the effect on teenagers. "When you say something is a criminal offense it sends a strong message," he said. "Once you start to eat away at that classification, it's somewhat a tacit approval of its use."
Sen. John A. Kissel, R-Enfield, opposed the bill when it came before the Democrat-controlled legislature. But as the top Republican on the legislature's Judiciary Committee, he inserted one change: That those under 21 ticketed for possession have their driver's licenses suspended for 60 days.
Kissel also said that whenever crime statistics are in play, it should be noted that crime overall is down in the state.
New York Marijuana Bill May Stall; Connecticut To Decriminalize Pot Possession
Good thing its not up to the Lt. jr Governor!- UA
More than 30 years ago, New York state decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana. But one line in that 1977 law has led to the annual arrest of thousands of New Yorkers under the NYPD's controversial stop-and-frisk searches.
Having fewer than 25 grams of marijuana at home is not a criminal offense, but displaying or smoking the same substance out on the street (or in any public place) is. The police have used that fact as part of an aggressive, and critics say unconstitutional, campaign to deter crime by detaining large numbers of people in some of the city's poorest neighborhoods.
New York police arrested 50,377 people for misdemeanor possession of marijuana last year. Last month, Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries (D-Brooklyn) and Senator Mark Grisanti (R-Buffalo) introduced a bill in Albany to decriminalize public possession.
So far, Jeffries told HuffPost, the response has been encouraging, but time is running out before the end of the session on June 20.
"If we are able to advance it out of committee, it has a shot of passing in the Assembly," he said.
Gabriel Sayegh, the director of state organizing for the Drug Policy Alliance, which supports the bill, said he was not optimistic the measure would become law this year. But he added that the proposal has sparked "quite the conversation" in the capital.
"In short, this is Albany, so this is going to be a very a difficult fight. It's not going to pass without a major, major push," Sayegh said.
Both Sayegh and Jeffries pointed to one sign of hope for advocates of further decriminalization: Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his police commissioner, Ray Kelly, have yet to take a public position on the decriminalization push.
Across the border in Connecticut, a bill to decriminalize pot possession in general passed in the Senate on Sunday and the House on Tuesday.
When Gov. Dan Malloy (D) signs the measure into law, as he has promised to do, a first-time violation for possessing less than a half ounce of pot will carry a $150 fine. Possession of less than four ounces can currently be punished with a $1,000 fine and a year in prison.
Connecticut would become the 14th state to decriminalize some amount of marijuana.
Michael Lawlor, Governor Malloy's undersecretary for criminal justice policy and planning, told HuffPost the bill was intended to "free up a lot of resources in the criminal justice system to focus on more serious and violent offenses."
Instead of sending suspects to be booked and enter the criminal justice system, they will receive a fine, and in Lawlor's experience as a criminal justice professor, "swift and certain punishment is more effective than potential severity of punishment."
Another bill in Connecticut, to legalize medical marijuana, faces a more uncertain future. Lawlor sees "strong bipartisan support" in his state, but is also concerned about a filibuster threat in the Senate.
"If we could get it debated, it would certainly pass," Lawlor said. Another such bill passed in 2007 but was vetoed by then-Governor M. Jodi Rell.
State Sen. Toni Boucher (R) opposes both the decriminalization of marijuana and the current version of the medical marijuana bill. She has gone so far as to claim that Malloy supports the legislation out of a personal interest, according to an interview with the Stonington Patch:
“Malloy is promoting this bill," she said. "One of his sons has had serious problems with drugs. [The governor] has a personal interest in this."
Boucher was referring to Benjamin Malloy's arrests for dealing marijuana and robbing a man with marijuana at gunpoint. Governor Malloy declined to comment to Patch.
Connecticut Moves to Cut Pot Penalties
This would be a great start.........-UA
By SHELLY BANJO wsj.com 6/5
Starting next month, getting caught with a small amount of marijuana could cost Connecticut tokers as little as $150.
Over the weekend, the State Senate passed a bill decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana. The bill is backed by Democratic Gov. Dannel Malloy and is likely to pass the House.
Connecticut follows a string of state that have decriminalized pot, including New York where a first offense of 25 grams (almost an ounce) or less is treated with a civil citation and a $100 fine. New Jersey passed a law last year to legalize medical marijuana, but possession of up to 50 grams for nonmedical purposes still is punishable by up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.
Connecticut said the move would free up time and money the state spends on processing more than 2,000 cases a year of small-time offenders.
"We're not ratcheting down the seriousness of using marijuana but the governor believes the punishment should fit the crime," said Mike Lawlor, Mr. Malloy's criminal-justice adviser.
Currently, Connecticut residents carrying up to four ounces of pot face up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine. Under the bill just passed, carrying up to half an ounce of pot would result in a $150 fine for a first offense. After the first offense the fine goes up to between $200 and $500. Offenders under 21 years old would also lose their driver's license for two months.
The Legislature has tried before to decriminalize marijuana but former Republican governor M. Jodi Rell opposed it. In March, a Quinnipiac University poll found 65% of Connecticut's voters supported the decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana. Mr. Malloy, a former Brooklyn prosecutor, called it a "common sense reform."
Still, Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman had to use her tie-breaking vote for the first time since taking office in January to win passage of the bill: All 14 Republicans and 4 Democrats had voted against the action, resulting in an 18-18 tie.
The move to decriminalize marijuana came amid a flurry of action over the weekend as Connecticut lawmakers tried to pass a number of far-reaching bills before the legislative session's clock runs out Wednesday.
After an 11-hour debate Friday and Saturday, legislators passed a bill mandating employers in the service sector to offer paid sick days to their employees. Connecticut is the first state in the country to pass mandatory paid sick leave, although similar legislation is pending in California and Massachusetts. It has also passed in Washington, D.C., and San Francisco.
Gov. Malloy is expected to sign these bills, passed by the Democratic-controlled General Assembly, into law.
Republican leaders, who voted against the measures, called them irresponsible. "Laws tell a story about what a state's all about," said House Republican leader Larry Cafero. "The chapter this governor is writing about Connecticut is about taxing at historic levels, spending more, telling business you're not welcome here with paid sick leave, going soft on our criminal population and sending a message to our youth that it's not that bad to smoke marijuana."