Pubdate: Wed, 08 Jun 2011 Source: Day, The (New London,CT) Copyright: 2011 The Day Publishing Co. Contact: http://www.theday.com/ Details: http://www.mapinc.org/media/293 Author: Jc Reindl STATE ABOUT TO DOWNGRADE SOME MARIJUANA PENALTIES House follows Senate in backing decriminalization Hartford - Connecticut is set to become the 14th state to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana after a bill to downgrade the penalties cleared the state House Tuesday on a 90-57 vote. The measure passed the Senate Saturday, and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said he will sign it into law. The bill does not affect the legality of marijuana, which remains illegal for nonmedical use in all 50 states. The bill reduces the penalty for possessing less than a half-ounce of marijuana from a crime with a potential prison sentence to a $150 violation on the first offense. Second and subsequent offenses carry a $200-$500 fine, and third-time offenders must enroll in a drug education program at their own expense. "We are not legalizing marijuana in the state of Connecticut, but we have a problem with kids' lives being ruined because they got caught with a joint - they can't get a job, they can't go to college," said Rep. Ernest Hewett, D-New London. "They're not criminals, they just made a mistake. And I hope all of them learn from that mistake." To further deter youths, the bill requires violators under age 21 to have their driver's licenses suspended for 60 days. Those who don't yet drive would have to wait an additional 150 days to obtain a license. Under current state law, individuals holding less than 4 ounces of marijuana can face a fine of up to $1,000 for a first offense and imprisonment of up to a year. In practice, however, most first-time offenders pay a fine closer to $200, and jail time is rare. Second or subsequent offenses now carry a fine of up to $3,000 and up to five years in prison. A two-year prison sentence is mandatory if possession happens within 1,500 feet of a school or day care center, unless the offender is a student at the school. Proponents of decriminalization say a criminal record with potential prison time is too stiff a penalty for a relatively minor offense. "We're trying to make the consequences for having marijuana more in line with the type of crime it is," said Rep. Kevin Ryan, D-Montville, who voted for the bill. The bill had some bipartisan support but passed mostly along party lines. Lawmakers have said they do not expect a medical marijuana bill to have the votes to pass this legislation session. Connecticut's Department of Public Safety has said that decriminalization would save the state money through reduced paperwork and staff time for police, prosecutors and the courts. It would also free law enforcement resources for more serious crimes, proponents say. In 2009 there were 9,290 marijuana arrests in Connecticut of individuals 18 or older, representing 6.7 percent of total arrests statewide, according to the Office of Fiscal Analysis. About 75 percent of the marijuana arrests were for possessing less than half an ounce. The bill's opponents argued that decriminalization sends the wrong message about drug use to young people. Rep. Chris Coutu, R-Norwich, said he has been warned by Norwich-area DARE officers that the bill would harm their efforts at keeping youths away from drugs. Coutu said he has observed how a young person's casual marijuana use can progress to heavy abuse, imperiling a once-bright future. "Some of the best athletes from our schools, they became potheads and unfortunately their lives never turned around, and it started because of one joint," Coutu said. "If it happened to a couple people in my school ... it's probably happened to tens of thousands of people across the state." House Minority Leader Lawrence Cafero, R-Norwalk, said that as a volunteer expulsion officer for Norwalk schools, he's seen the lives of too many teenagers ruined by drug use. Many habitual marijuana users were once good students and active in extracurricular activities before the drug sapped their motivation. "The marijuana in the mid-'70s, the marijuana you smoked in the early '80s, it's not the same anymore - it's 100 times more potent," Cafero said. A March Quinnipiac University poll found that 65 percent of Connecticut voters support decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana. The bill passed the Senate Saturday after Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman broke an 18-18 tie vote. An earlier version of the legislation would have decriminalized up to 1 ounce of marijuana. Lawmakers said a half-ounce is enough for about 30 joints. "Final approval of this legislation accepts the reality that the current law does more harm than good - both in the impact it has on people's lives and the burden it places on police, prosecutors and probation officers of the criminal justice system," Malloy said in a statement Tuesday. The life of the governor's son, Benjamin Malloy, has been affected by marijuana use. The young Malloy was accused by police in 2007 of dealing marijuana and entered a probationary program. He later pleaded guilty to attempted robbery and narcotics charges for a 2009 incident in which he and others tried to rob a Darien man of marijuana. Both incidents happened while the governor was mayor of Stamford. The state Senate late Monday passed a bill that designates five synthetic versions of marijuana and an herb called Salvia divinorum as controlled substances to be regulated by the Department of Consumer Protection. - --- MAP posted-by: Richard R Smith Jr.