Now we’ve got a governor willing to get behind medical marijuana and decriminalization of small amounts of pot. So the obvious questions is, can complete legalization be far behind?
Unfortunately, the answer is almost certainly yes. Connecticut is a long way from being ready to allow grass to be bought and sold legally, no matter how many millions of badly needed tax dollars it might generate.
“I just don’t think that would be appropriate in the current situation,” says Michael Lawlor, Gov. Dannel Malloy’s top criminal justice policy adviser and a former lawmaker who for years backed both medical marijuana and decriminalization of pot.
Malloy is willing to get behind concepts like allowing marijuana for medical purposes and decriminalizing grass (he submitted bills on both last week), but he was also cautious enough to not actually use the word “marijuana” in his budget address.
Instead, Malloy argued that reducing the number of people arrested and jailed for “minor, non-violent or drug offenses” would be one way to cut state costs at a time when we’re facing a deficit of more than $3.5 billion.
“This new policy will save us millions of dollars, which is a benefit of a more enlightened policy whose time I think has come,” was the way our new Democratic governor put it.
Medical marijuana isn’t a party-line issue in Connecticut.
“It feels good to see the light at the end of the tunnel,” says state Rep. Penny Bacchiochi, a Republican from the northeastern Connecticut town of Somers who has been the most outspoken advocate for medical marijuana in the General Assembly.
“This is the ninth year I’ve been here working on this,” she explains. Bacchiochi has made emotional pleas for the legislation, explaining to fellow lawmakers how she had to illegally buy grass for her cancer-stricken husband years ago. He died, and Bacchiochi has campaigned for medical marijuana ever since.
The legislation Malloy is offering is virtually identical to the bill passed four years ago. It would allow a person who has a prescription for the medical use of marijuana, or that person’s caregiver, to legally grow a limited number of plants for his or her personal use.
With Malloy backing the bill this year, Bacchiochi is cautiously confident it will finally become law. She’s also a realist: “I was pretty confident in 2007 and then, boom! [Governor Rell] vetoed it.”
“You can never be sure with the legislature,” she warns. “The train can go off the tracks at a million different stops.”
She is less confident about prospects for decriminalization of pot. Bacchiochi says she’s been hesitant about taking a stand on decriminalization, fearing involvement in that debate might “confuse my issue [medical marijuana] a little bit.”
Bacchiochi does think the extraordinary circumstances of this Democratic governor, with Lawlor as his point man, in a year when every dollar saved will help the deficit, could produce some surprising results. “All the stars are lined up,” she says.
The anti-decriminalization forces are already gearing up for a fight.
The bill the governor’s proposing would make possession of less than an ounce of grass an infraction. There would be no jail time for conviction (right now, getting caught with that amount of pot could land you in prison for a year), and the heaviest penalty would be a $100 fine that you could pay the same way you pay a traffic ticket. Malloy’s plan is the same one now in effect in Massachusetts.
“I don’t believe he will get a lot of support in my party,” state Senate Republican Leader John McKinney of Fairfield says. “It sends a horrible message to high-school students and college students. … I can’t imagine marijuana usage going down if we decriminalize it.”
Democrats like state Rep. Steve Dargan of West Haven are also likely to vote no. “Right now, I’m against it,” says Dargan, who is co-chairman of the legislature’s Public Safety Committee.
Deputy House Republican Leader Themis Klarides of Derby doesn’t like the idea either. She argues that very few people are actually sent to prison in Connecticut for having less than an ounce of pot. “There are 10 different programs they can enter right now to help them stay out of jail,” she says.
Lawlor acknowledges there are now only about 60 people actually serving time in this state for minor pot possession of small amounts, but says there are another 1,000 folks on probation for that offense. Lawlor argues that the big savings for the state with decriminalization would come from reduced paperwork and staff time for police, prosecutors and the courts if all they had to do was treat minor possession as an infraction.
Bacchiochi believes it could take a long time to bring Connecticut voters around to the idea of complete legalization of marijuana.
After all, she says, “medical marijuana is a much softer concept, and we’re in our ninth year on that issue.”
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