Pubdate: Tue, 28 Feb 2012 Source: Connecticut Post (Bridgeport, CT) Copyright: 2012sMediaNews Group, Inc Contact: http://www.ctpost.com/feedback/ Website: http://www.ctpost.com/ Details: http://www.mapinc.org/media/574 Authors: Brian Lockhart and Tom Cleary POT TICKETS REDUCING JUDICIAL BURDEN Matt, a 20-year-old student at Sacred Heart University, occasionally buys small amounts of marijuana. He has never been caught by police, but he said friends have, and they got lucky. Faced with two choices -- charging the users with a crime punishable by a $1,000 fine and possible imprisonment or letting Matt's friends go after disposing of the pot -- the police chose the latter. "They didn't arrest them," said Matt, who asked that his last name not be published. "They just let them go." For the past several months, cops have taken advantage of a third option granted last year by Connecticut lawmakers. According to the state Judicial Branch, police officers in the last half of 2011 issued 1,956 infractions of $150 to individuals caught with a half-ounce or less of marijuana. Like a traffic ticket, the fines can be paid or contested. Those under 21 have their driver's license suspended for 60 days. That reduced penalty -- carved out of an existing law criminalizing possession of anything under four ounces -- was passed last year by the Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy. Proponents argued that arresting a subject was too inflexible for police, ate up resources better spent on more serious crimes and saddled young people with a record that made it difficult to enter college or land their first job. Critics countered that the softened penalties, mirroring similar laws in New York, Massachusetts and 11 other states, would only encourage substance abuse, particularly by minors. Observers say it is far too soon to gauge the full impact of the changes, but clearly police departments are taking advantage of their new flexibility. According to the Judicial Branch's data, there has been a drop in arrests for possession of small amounts of pot. There were 4,774 arrests under the old, less-than-four ounces law between July 1 and Dec. 1, 2010. With possession of less than a half-ounce out of the equation, those arrests dropped to 1,127. Add that figure to the 1,956 tickets issued and there is a remaining balance of 1,691 fewer arrests than in 2010. "So it looks like there's been a drop in the number of people getting some type of penalty, whether it's a crime or violation," said Michael Lawlor, Malloy's undersecretary for criminal justice policy. "My guess is that's not because fewer people are smoking or possessing it, but probably police are just taking the public policy cue they should focus on other situations, like violence and guns." Judge Robert Devlin, chief administrative judge for criminal matters, said it is possible in some cases officers are letting suspects off with a warning after seizing the pot. "Part of it could be police, because of the reduction in the offense, feel more justified in allowing someone to maybe deal with it -- if it's someone they think they can get their attention with a couple of words and not bring them into the court system," Devlin said. But some law enforcement officials insist violators are not being let off the hook. "It would not be our policy to issue warnings for marijuana possession," said Greenwich Chief of Police Jim Heavey. "I could give you absolute certainty that's not going to be the case." Of the 1,956 infractions, 116 were dismissed; penalties were reduced/altered for 110; 97 were ignored by suspects and are now considered misdemeanor offenses; and 804 cases are pending. Five tickets were issued for subsequent offenses. Of those, four are pending, and one was dismissed. 'WE WEIGH IT' Defense Attorney Richard Meehan, of Bridgeport, believes the lessened penalties are having a positive impact on an overburdened court system. "Typically, what would happen before the law changed is somebody comes in, they're arrested with five or six joints -- less than a half-ounce - -- and go to the community service labor program," Meehan said. "That required at least three court appearances before the matter was resolved ... (And) our Judicial Branch has taken a huge hit with budget cuts." A pair of state law enforcement leaders, one representing Connecticut's police chiefs, the other rank-and-file officers, said they are unaware of any complaints about the reduced marijuana penalties. "We didn't lose any rights ... We still have the ability to conduct our searches whether on a person or the vehicle," said Cromwell Chief Anthony Salvatore, legislative co-chairman for the Connecticut State Police Chiefs Association. Jeffrey Matchett, a police officer in Milford for 20 years, is head of the Connecticut Council of Police. "It adds another level of enforcement that aids the officer in his discretion and policing," Matchett said of the new law. Matchett said the public should not assume officers simply write out a ticket for marijuana and move on. "As a police officer you're always looking at trying to do more," he said. "That's where the discretion comes in. 'I'm going to cut you a break here, but who are you buying from? I'll give you an infraction this time, but ... ' " When the law was changed in 2011, critics questioned how police officers would be able to differentiate a half-ounce and if departments would need to send cops on the road with portable scales. In fact, some departments have done so. "We did purchase a scale for our sergeant's vehicle," New Canaan Chief Edward Nadriczny, head of a Fairfield County police chiefs group, said. "If there's a question, we weigh it and go from there." But he said that could prove prohibitive for larger departments because of their call volumes and other criminal activity. Norwalk Police Chief Harry Rilling said generally his officers can eyeball it. "If a person's got a joint, you know it's way less than half an ounce," Rilling said. 'STILL AN UNHEALTHY DRUG' For Ginger Katz, any amount is unacceptable. After losing her 20-year-old son in 1996 to a drug overdose, Katz founded the Norwalk-based Courage to Speak Foundation, an anti-drug group that works with students, teachers and parents. Katz maintains marijuana is a gateway drug for youths to experiment with other narcotics. "Particularly high school kids are misunderstanding the law," Katz said. "They think it's legalized. They completely don't understand it and they think it's OK ... I explain it's still an unhealthy drug to use and it doesn't make it right." Katz also said more and more parents are taking her courses. A record 101 signed up in November alone. "They don't know what to do with their kids," she said. A 2010 report by the General Assembly's Office of Legislative Research concluded that while states which decriminalized marijuana have above-average rates of usage it cannot necessarily be attributed to the change in penalties. "It is difficult to tell if marijuana usage increased because of decriminalization, or if states chose to decriminalize marijuana because so many people were using it anyway," the report said. But Steven Karjanis, a social worker who has run drug prevention programs at Bridgeport schools, does not believe relaxing pot penalties will cause more young people in Connecticut to begin using. "I don't think kids really care what the penalty is," Karjanis said. "When they pick up a blunt they don't think, 'What are my penalties? Should I take it or shouldn't I?' It's all peer pressure, all stress-related." Nadriczny said when youths are involved officers may choose to contact parents or guardians. "Based on the factors involved -- the age of the individual, quantity and, on some large part, the attitude -- you might certainly dispose of (the marijuana) and notify a parent or guardian," Jadriczny said. "It's important for law enforcement officers to have that discretion." MORE USE ENCOURAGED? Matt from Sacred Heart said the changes in state law have not influenced his frequency of use. And Jenna, 20, a Fairfield University student who also declined to have her last name published, said although she has smoked some pot in the past, the frequency will not increase because she now only faces a ticket. "I guess the fear of being arrested and having that on the record, it's nice to not have that anymore," Jenna said. "But I've only done it a few times. It wouldn't make me want to go out and do it more." Meehan said if anything the problem is the marijuana penalties are still tough but the average person, particularly youths, may have misinterpreted the changes. He represents a 20-year-old client who was carrying a small amount of pot but also had a scale. Under the law police can make an arrest for having materials used in drug distribution. "Here's a guy thinking I'm not breaking the law because I've got a quarter-ounce of grass," Meehan said. Meehan also opposes the license suspension, arguing it should only be applied to drivers found at the wheel while high. "It's unfair to say to the 19-year-old with a joint, you lose your license, but the 22-year-old or 50-year-old, you're fine," he said. "(Suspension for) operating under the influence of marijuana makes sense." According to the state Department of Motor Vehicles, to date, 2,746 drivers under 21 have had licenses suspended. ON THE CAMPUSES For the most part the state's colleges and universities have not softened their policies on marijuana use, according to spokesmen for Sacred Heart, Fairfield, Quinnipiac and Western Connecticut State universities. Quinnipiac University did educate students about the changed state laws for marijuana possession. "What was important, from my perspective, in discussions with students was to emphasize what laws didn't change," said Quinnipiac Dean of Student Affairs Seann Kalagher. "In reality, the decriminalization law only changed a very small part of the state's drug laws. Laws regarding paraphernalia and distribution, for example, remained unchanged." Kalagher noted many Quinnipiac students are from states where lesser pot penalties or medical marijuana "are already part of the culture." But the University of Connecticut last summer reduced sanctions for students caught with marijuana. Rather than suspension, administrators have the option of issuing a warning or referring the student to an educational program. "The message to students continues to be that marijuana is still illegal and still unacceptable on UConn's campuses," UConn's Michael Kirk said. "And the police are still called if, for example, an RA (resident assistant) suspects that someone may be in possession of or using marijuana in a residence hall." The changes in sanctions at UConn came in part because of a movement by the student government and a group called Students for Sensible Drug Policy. Sam Tracy, the president of the student body and the former president of SSDP, said the changes in state law allowed them to push for the new university policy. He said suspended students are more likely to drop out of school. "I think the younger generation is starting to realize a lot more so than the older generation that marijuana is relatively harmless and not as bad as alcohol," he said. "So it doesn't make sense to be grouping it in with more serious drugs. It's a step in the right direction, making punishments not as harsh." - --- MAP posted-by: Richard R Smith Jr.