Measures to relax drug laws gain new backing
HARTFORD -- After more than 10 years of trying, 2011 could be the year that Connecticut adopts legislation allowing severely ill patients to smoke marijuana.
Advocates say it eases painful symptoms of some diseases, as well as the nausea caused by chemotherapy.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy says he's inclined to sign that bill.
Malloy also supports so-called decriminalization legislation to reduce penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana to the price of a motor vehicle infraction.
Now, with a friendly face in the governor's office, all the legislative proponents of the two measures have to do is push the bills through a variety of committee debates and floor battles in the House and Senate, fend off opposition and get the bills approved before the midnight June 8 deadline.
Opponents vow to battle both issues.
Back in 2007, marijuana for medical use overcame the legislative hurdles only to be vetoed by Gov. M. Jodi Rell.
This year, fifth-term Rep. Penny Bacchiochi, R-Somers, is optimistic that the bill can become law, nearly 30 years after her first husband's terminal cancer sent her -- scared of breaking the law ---into the underground market seeking the substance.
"After 2007, I've learned a lot of things," Bacchiochi said Friday. "I learned not to get my hopes up. When my husband had cancer and smoked marijuana, it was 1983 and that was a long, long time ago. I know it's the right thing to do, but I'm no more emotional about it now than I am about our budget crisis."
Ten years ago, when she got involved in the issue during her first term, Bacchiochi said eight states had medical marijuana laws and now there are 16. "The rest of the country is slowly moving forward," she said.
Bacchiochi, stressing that the state's budget crisis is overarching in its importance this session, said she wants to keep focused on medical uses and doesn't want to get involved with advocating the decriminalizing of cannabis.
That is being pushed by Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney, D-New Haven, whose identical proposal, modeled after a 2008 Massachusetts law, failed two years ago. "It's in the hopper," Looney said Thursday, conceding that it faces an uphill battle. People caught with an ounce or less of marijuana would merit only infractions and arrest records would not be affected.
"Obviously it will continue to be a challenge and always will be controversial but there are factors that should give it momentum this year," Looney said. "Legislators are a little bit more comfortable with it, having it introduced two years ago and the general public is broadly supportive of this kind of legislation. And we're desperately looking for savings in the criminal justice system and this is the way to do it."
PUBLIC OPINION AND THE ISSUE
Looney said there's evidence that decriminalization could be part of an overall examination of the costs of police, courts and prisons.
One of Malloy's post-election policy working groups recently charged that "state policy toward illegal drugs is expensive, ineffective and destructive of neighborhoods and families." Looney said Malloy's position is encouraging.
Opponents of the drug-reform legislation are plotting their strategies.
House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr., R-Norwalk, was so opposed to the 2009 bill that in a rare move he used his ex-officio status as a member to address the Judiciary Committee on Looney's earlier legislation.
During a Friday interview Cafero offered a similar argument to the revived proposal -- that as an expulsion officer for 18 years in his hometown of Norwalk, he has witnessed firsthand the impact marijuana use has on students, their families and the school system.
"In many cases it is that gateway drug. That high isn't quite enough anymore," Cafero said. "When you decriminalize it and equate it to a speeding ticket the message is, `It's not all that bad any more.' And I'd submit to you when you're dealing especially with 12- to 18- year-olds, that message translates into, `What's the big deal?'"
Cafero said he cannot understand, given all the wasteful spending in Hartford, why Looney and his supporters are so driven to decriminalize a drug.
"Are you kidding me.? What has happened to us?" Cafero said.
He also cannot fathom Malloy's support.
"I don't understand why Gov. Malloy, a very bright man, who has children of his own and was mayor of a major city with several high schools within that city and had to deal with crime and drugs and its effects on society firsthand, would be supportive of this," Cafero said.
In fact, back in March 2009, Malloy's son Ben, then 21, was arrested on charges of attempted armed robbery after an incident involving a marijuana deal in Darien. He was sentenced to probation. In November 2007 Ben Malloy was arrested for marijuana possession.
`A DANGEROUS DIRECTION'
In 2009, state Rep. Gerald M. Fox III, D-Stamford, voted against the decriminalization bill as a vice-chairman of the Judiciary Committee because of issues on its implementation and impact. This session Fox is now a powerful co-chairman, along with Sen. Eric D. Coleman, D-Bloomfield.
"I'm willing to look at it in connection with all of our statutes dealing with marijuana (and) how it's going to work as an overall policy throughout our juvenile and adult courts," Fox said.
He added the estimated savings for not prosecuting people caught with small amounts of marijuana -- $11 million in 2009 -- "is something. I don't know if it's enough."
Sen. Antonietta "Toni" Boucher, R-Wilton, a vehement opponent of marijuana use, said she is not surprised Looney reintroduced the decriminalization bill, since Malloy has said he supports it.
"They're all supporting it and they're using the excuse it's going to save money," she said. "It's a dangerous direction and I will be opposing it vigorously."