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Out of the Weed

“Sorry, officer, I thought they were my American Spirits.” Carrying the wrong kind of cigarettes last spring meant a one thousand dollar fine, possibly jail time, and certainly a misdemeanor on your criminal record. Caught again? Try a felony.

On June 7, the Connecticut House of Representatives gave final approval to SB 1014, a marijuana decriminalization bill that reduces the penalty for possession of less than half an ounce of cannabis (about fifteen cigarettes) from a misdemeanor to an infraction. A first-time offense now carries only a $150 fine while a subsequent offense rises to five hundred dollars. For the most bullish reformers, however, the bill is a mixed bag. Cannabis remains illegal on the books. An offender under 21 may now find her driver’s license suspended for up to sixty days. And a three-peat at any age now results in automatic enrollment in a drug treatment program at the offender’s expense.

The law only applies statewide, and marijuana remains a Schedule I drug—illegal to manufacture, distribute, dispense, or possess—under the federal Controlled Substances Act. Actions of state lawmakers also caution against interpreting the bill’s passage as a sea change in values. By the time the State House of Representatives acted, the State Senate had already moved on to two separate bills. It approved by a vote of 34-2 a moratorium on new hookah lounges until Jan. 1, 2013, when the Connecticut Department of Health will release new, stricter regulations. Then it unanimously set the penalty for the possession of any quantity of synthetic pot at one thousand dollars and/or one year in jail.

“For the life of me, I don’t know how I’m going to explain to my constituents one penalty for the fake pot and another for the real pot,” State Senate Republican leader John McKinney said.

Marijuana reform advocates agree that decriminalization is a step in the right direction. But decriminalization is also an awkward middle ground. Only full legalization, advocates say, can eliminate the stigma associated with marijuana use and take cannabis off the black market. In some ways, decriminalization is the least satisfying option to both prohibitionists and reformers—decriminalization preserves a taboo in name but reduces punishment to a slap on the wrist.

The new law’s mixture of reform and prohibition reflects its contentious path to the governor’s desk. The State Senate deadlocked 18-18 over the final bill, requiring Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman to cast a rare tie-breaking vote. The bill’s opponents accused Gov. Dannel P. Malloy of supporting decriminalization out of “personal interest” for his son, who had been convicted of selling cannabis in 2007 and robbing a Darien man of his pot at gunpoint in 2009.

The bill’s vocal detractors included senators and assemblymen from conservative Fairfield County. But their familiar refrain of “What will we tell the kids?” didn’t provoke comparable moral urgency from the bill’s proponents. Those in favor of the bill cited the cost of criminalization to the state rather than ideas of personal liberty or opposition to a “prohibitionist” attitude.

Malloy repeatedly characterized the bill as “common sense reform.”

“We are not making marijuana legal,” he clarified after the Senate passed the bill. “We are not allowing people who use it and get caught to avoid the repercussions.”

Criminalization of small amounts of marijuana simply “does more harm than good,” he said.

Advocates for decriminalization bills often cite the social stigma of marijuana possession. Police arrest about seven thousand people every year for possession of less than half an ounce, and many of those arrested do complete programs to wipe their conviction from their permanent record, according to the legislature’s Office of Fiscal Analysis—but removing the more private effects of arrest proves more difficult. Connecticut lawmakers, however, cited economic arguments before worries of social stigma. They kept a narrow focus on the harm a criminal record can do to “future employment prospects.”

Proponents’ lack of vigor can be forgiven at a time of slender budgets, underfunded courts, and over-crowded prisons. Each dollar in the $900,000 of estimated savings from the bill is a dollar not taken from libraries, school lunches, and winter road maintenance. And fewer incarcerations means the lives of two thousand more men and women will be uninterrupted by the blunt instrument of prison.

Malloy has promised to introduce legislation in the coming year to protect medical cannabis users, and legalization advocates have the demographics and momentum for legalization on their side. The question now is whether legalization in Connecticut will happen for the right reasons. If this summer is any instruction, when legalization comes to Hartford it will be wearing a business suit with red ink on its mind.

But its pocket square could be hemp.

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