East Coast lawmakers are seeking to decriminalize small amounts of pot. Image: katherine_hitt/Flickr/CC BY-ND

This week, the Connecticut Senate narrowly passed legislation that decriminalizes possession of small amounts of marijuana. A similar bill on the floor in New York seeks to repair a loophole in earlier legislation. Even supporters of that bill see its passage before the session ends as doubtful.

$150 fine for possession

The Connecticut measure passed the Senate on Sunday. Lt. Governor Nancy Wyman (D) broke an 18-to-18 tie. The measure passed the House on Tuesday. Under the new law, a first-time violation for possessing less than half an ounce carries a $150 fine. The former laws mandated a punishment of a $1,000 fine and up to a year in jail.

When signed into law by Gov. Dan Malloy (D), Connecticut will become the 14th state to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana.

Arguments for and against

Opponents of the bill claim it sends the wrong message about drug use. Supporters, on the other hand, say the legislation will clear up courts and jails for more serious offenders. Other arguments include helping young people from having criminal records that could damage their chances to enter college or get good jobs.

“We are not enforcing the use of illegal drugs. We strongly disapprove of their use,” said Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney (D). “But we’re trying to realign their punishment [to one] that is more appropriate.”

Across the border

In New York, lawmakers are seeking to seal a loophole in the state’s 1977 decriminalization law. Under that law, it is not a criminal offense to possess less than 25 grams of marijuana. It is, however, criminal to possess the substance in public. This has led to the arrest of thousands of people under the NYPD’s controversial “stop and frisk” policy. Last year alone, 50,377 people were arrested for misdemeanor marijuana possession.

Time is running out

New York Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries (D) and Senator Mark Grisanti (R) introduced a bill last month seeking to decriminalize public possession. The bill is still in committee, however, and time is running out before the session ends on June 20. “If we are able to advance it out of committee, it has a shot of passing in the Assembly,” said Jeffries.

‘Quite the conversation’

“This is Albany, so this is going to be a very a difficult fight. It’s not going to pass without a major, major push,” said Gabriel Sayegh, a director for the Drug Policy Alliance. He remains doubtful that the bill will pass, but adds that it has started “quite the conversation.”

Neither New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg nor city Police Commissioner Ray Kelly have taken a position on the issue, which supporters see as a positive sign.


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