By the slimmest of margins, the Senate on Saturday approved a bill that decriminalizes the possession of small amounts of marijuana. The vote was 18-18, with Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman tipping the balance with the tie-breaking vote.
After years of false starts, Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and other supporters were able to assemble a coalition that championed decriminalization as both a cost-saving measure and a more appropriate way to punish young people who experiment with the drug.
The bill now moves to the House of Representatives.
"We've spent billions of dollars building more prisons and prison cells, and put greater emphasis on punishment with little to no emphasis on rehabilitation, and the numbers of people being convicted and sentenced did not decrease,'' said Sen. Eric Coleman, a Democrat from Bloomfield and co-chairman of the legislature's judiciary committee.
"We're trying something a little different in hopes that results will be better,'' Coleman added.
Much of the three-hour debate was dominated by critics expounding on the dangers of marijuana. Sen. Toni Boucher, a Republican from Wilton and an outspoken opponent, cited several studies showing the pernicious effects of cannabis on the brain and the body.
But as is the case with many discussions at the Capitol, lawmakers' positions on marijuana policy are seen through the prism of personal experience.
Sen. John McKinney of Fairfield, the House Republican leader, spoke of his sister Lucie's cocaine addiction, which he said was rooted in her use of marijuana.
She has been clean and sober for years, McKinney said, but "she has an addiction. … That informs my decision on issues related to drugs. … Marijuana is a gateway drug, unlike alcohol, unlike tobacco. … It is different."
Sen. Edward Meyer, a Democrat from Guilford, broke with the majority of his own party and opposed the bill, largely, he said, because of the devastation marijuana has wrought on his own family.
Meyer cited two relatives, whom he did not name but said were not his children, and detailed how their lives were wrecked by the drug. One is a 30-year-old dysfunctional schizophrenic who lives with his parents and "has no good habits," Meyer said. The other, he said, is a 19-year-old user with severe bipolar disorder, triggered by heavy drug use.
"I know that it has got some good cost benefits,'' Meyer said of the bill. "But the negative health benefits ... I think suggest on balance that we should reject this bill and look for other ways to raise that money."
Meyer was a key vote on a bill whose chances for passage were shaky at best just a few weeks ago.
Malloy, who lobbied hard for the measure, applauded the passage and urged the House to do the same.
"The punishment should fit the crime," Malloy said in a statement Saturday evening. "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. 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.
"As a former prosecutor in Brooklyn, my opinion on this issue was formed a long time ago," he said. "While our focus will continue to be on prevention and juvenile offenders will be referred to court officials for treatment, this proposal frees up more of our police and prosecutors to fight violent crime."
Three other Democrats — Sens. Joan Hartley of Waterbury, Paul Doyle of Wethersfield and Gayle Slossberg of Milford — joined Meyer and the Republicans in opposition.
The discussion was both passionate and clinical, with Wyman's tie-breaking vote lending a bit of drama to the proceedings. McKinney, who was attending a cancer fundraiser in Fairfield and was absent for most of the debate, arrived in the final minutes to make the vote 18-18.
Boucher, who led the Republican opposition to the bill, noted the inconsistency of a state that is considering banning hookah lounges and passing tough new penalties for those who use cellphones while driving yet is poised to lessen the punishment of what she views as a toxic and highly addictive substance.
The decriminalization bill would make the possession of a half-ounce of marijuana or less akin to receiving a speeding ticket rather than a criminal offense. First-time offenders would face a $150 fine; second and subsequent offenses would draw a penalty of at least $200 but no more than $500.
As part of a compromise, the Senate amended the measure to stiffen the punishment for young people caught with the drug. The possession and use of even a small amount of marijuana by a person 21 or younger would result in a 60-day driver's license suspension. Those 18 and under would be referred to juvenile justice authorities. Another amendment, also endorsed by the Senate, requires those with three or more offenses to obtain drug counseling at their own expense.
There were 9,290 marijuana arrests of individuals 18 and older in Connecticut in 2009 — three-quarters of them for possession of less than a half-ounce of the substance, according to the legislature's non-partisan Office of Fiscal Analysis. OFA estimated the state would save $885,000 annually in prosecutor and public defender salaries as well as court costs. OFA also found that the state could net up to $1.4 million annually in fines and fees.
"We are in a time of very scarce resources,'' Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney of New Haven said in his concluding comments. "We need to allow our police and prosecutors and all the resources of the criminal justice system to be prioritized on serious offenders, on dangerous offenders, on violent offenders."
Thirteen states, including Oregon, California, New York and, in 2008, Massachusetts, have already decriminalized marijuana.
If the House approves the bill, it would become law once the governor signs it.
The House voted Saturday for a bond package that includes borrowing more than $1 billion in each of the next two years. The borrowing is important because about 11 percent of the state's $20 billion annual budget goes to pay off the state's debt.
House Republican leader Larry Cafero of Norwalk said that the expansion of the University of Connecticut Health Center in Farmington and $154 million for the creation of a technology park at the Storrs campus are both fine projects, but the state must consider its funding requirements in a still-struggling economy.
The state legislature has already set aside more than $2 billion for UConn for various projects since 1995, and Cafero said the state's flagship university needs to reshuffle the money it has already received. But the legislature, which is filled with UConn graduates, has not asked the university to do that.
"Instead of reprioritizing, we just add on more and more and more money,'' said Cafero, a UConn graduate. "Right now, as we speak of the $2 billion, almost $740 million of that money has not been spent yet. In fairness, much of it has been committed. … Wouldn't it be prudent for the University of Connecticut to reprioritize? The economy we find ourselves in today is different from 1995.''
Cafero offered an amendment to remove the $154 million technology park from the bond package, but it was defeated by a wide margin in the Democratic-controlled House.
Health Insurance Exchange
In a 108-30 vote, the House granted final legislative approval for a bill that would create a quasi-public agency that would serve as a clearinghouse for those seeking to buy health insurance. The Senate previously approved the bill, 23-13.
The state is seeking to comply with the federal health care overhaul signed into law last year by President Barack Obama calling for health insurance exchanges to be created in all 50 states by 2014. Connecticut has received nearly $1 million to start the process.
The exchanges are designed to make it simpler for uninsured Americans to buy coverage. Through pooling, both businesses and consumers would have more leverage to receive better, cheaper rates. The exchange would be managed by a 14-member board, which would certify the health benefit plans.
Opponents, say there are still too many questions in the complicated world of health care, and Republicans nationwide have been trying to repeal the national health care law.
Batting Cage Helmets
After an initial skirmish that led to a compromise Saturday, the House voted 101-22 for a bill that requires youths under the age of 18 to wear a batting helmet in commercial batting cages. The compromise wording specifies that the measure does not create a statutory cause for court action if a minor was injured in a batting cage without wearing a helmet. Although the bill was passed, there are no financial penalties for minors who fail to wear a helmet.
Republicans had complained previously that the state government was getting too involved in a private business with another regulation.
While Cafero said that it is a good idea to increase safety for children, he added, "That doesn't mean every policy should be reduced to law.''
Cafero said that the policy should be BYOBH — bring your own batting helmet.
Rep. T. R. Rowe, a Trumbull Republican and a baseball player who has used the batting cage in Shelton, said, "The fact that we've got to spend time legislating common sense … is unfortunate.''Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun