Connecticut bill proposes to eliminate criminal penalities for minor marijuana posession

A man smokes a marijuana cigarette as a large group gathered near the New Jersey Statehouse to show their support for legalizing marijuana Saturday, March 21, 2015, in Trenton, N.J. (AP)

A man smokes a marijuana cigarette as a large group gathered near the New Jersey Statehouse to show their support for legalizing marijuana Saturday, March 21, 2015, in Trenton, N.J. (AP)

A bill that is being proposed would change minor drug possession from a felony to a misdemeanor, in hopes of saving Connecticut millions of dollars that otherwise would have been spent keeping those convicted of possession in prison.

“I think Connecticut, like most states right now, recognized what it was doing wasn’t working. Strict enforcement wasn’t having desired effect of reducing drug use and availability,” Patrick Gallahue, Communications Director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut, said.

The bill makes a quite a few changes to the criminal justice system, including re-classifying simple possession of small amounts of drugs from a felony to a misdemeanor and eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for possession of drugs within 1,500 feet of a school or day care center, which now punishes urban residents.

Anyone who was convicted of possession would be eligible to apply to have his or her conviction erased, Gallahue said.

“This is not a Republican or Democrat or left or right issue. Everyone is recognizing over reliance on incarceration is a disaster; it hasn’t increased public safety and costs so much money,” Gallahue said.

Gallahue said that if Connecticut reduced recidivism rate by 10 percent the state would save $20 million a year. With this change in bill, it is likely that the rate would be reduced by even more than 10 percent.

According to a poll done at Quinnipiac University, 67 percent of voters were in favor of reducing the penalty for small amounts of illegal drugs from a felony to a misdemeanor, and 82 percent of voters supported eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for small amounts of illegal drugs.

“By taking non-violent victimless crimes out of equation it frees up law enforcement to deal with violent crimes,” Gallahue said.

By removing criminal penalties for people caught with small amounts of marijuana or other drugs people can integrate back into society easier, Gallahue said.

“You can recover from addiction but you can’t recover from convictions,” Gallahue said.

Instead of holding people in prison for these nonviolent crimes, it has been proposed by Gov. Malloy’s second chance reform to divert users to mental health counseling or drug treatment when needed.

The second chance reform was proposed to help people reintegrate back into society after being caught with narcotics by being assisted with finding housing, jobs and developing skills.

New Haven Registrar suggests there would be about $2 million in savings by redirecting people caught with small amounts of drugs to drug treatment centers rather than prison.

This bill also opens up the discussion of decriminalization of marijuana in Connecticut.

“I think its fair to say full scale legalization will be debated in Connecticut if for no other reason then that it will be debated in the states around it,” Gallahue said.