Medical Marijuana Gets Closer to Legalization in Connecticut, But Some Worry Over Its Regulation

Rhode Island and New Jersey aren’t often put in the beacons-of-light category, but Connecticut is right now looking to those two states to help illuminate the tricky pathway toward state-sanctioned growing and sale of medical marijuana.

Across the border in Rhode Island, three nonprofit “compassion centers” are getting ready to open their doors to patients seeking marijuana for relief of their medical symptoms. Down in New Jersey, despite the stubborn right-wing resistance of Gov. Chris Christie, that state has licensed six “alternative treatment centers for medicinal marijuana.”

“Ideally, we’d like to have some legal, taxable and regulated way to provide medical marijuana,” says Michael Lawlor, point man on pot issues for Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s administration. And he says the Rhode Island and New Jersey systems appear to be a lot more Connecticut’s style than California’s wild and wacky Left Coast medical marijuana scene.

Connecticut legislation on medical marijuana and decriminalization of small amounts of pot breezed through the General Assembly’s Judiciary Committee earlier this month. Those approvals came despite complaints from some lawmakers about inadequate controls and “sending the wrong message” on smoking dope.

State Rep. Bruce V. Morris of Norwalk is one of the few Democrats to vote against the medical marijuana bill. “I struggled with this bill,” he says, acknowledging that he supports the intent of helping people in pain. “But the types of controls necessary [to regulate pot] haven’t been included.”

The committee debate included the opposition of a rotund little conservative from Cheshire, state Rep. Al Adinolfi. He offered up a strange, meandering story about a family friend suffering from cancer who turned to medical marijuana to help with the pain.

“He smoked, he kept on smoking marijuana, just quite regularly and he felt good all the time, naturally,” explained Adinolfi. “And things progressed. His ear actually fell off. But marijuana kept him going … and finally, in the end, because he refused to go for treatment, because he felt good and he felt comfortable, he died. … In this case, the marijuana helped him die.”

It wasn’t clear whether Adinolfi’s off-beat argument had any effect, but there’s always the possibility that it convinced more lawmakers to vote in favor of the bill (which passed 34-10).

Malloy has signed on to both medical pot and decriminalization and it looks more and more likely that, at the very least, Connecticut will join the 15 states and District of Columbia that have approved medical marijuana. By some estimates, medical marijuana has already become big business, with 25 million people medically eligible to buy pot to treat chronic pain and other symptoms of various diseases such as AIDS and cancer.

The Connecticut medical marijuana bill would allow a person with a doctor’s prescription (or that person’s caregiver) to legally grow up to four marijuana plants for his or her personal use. Critics questioned how those folks could legally buy marijuana seeds and raised other issues about how to regulate the system and the fact that grass continues to be illegal under federal law.

The route taken in Rhode Island has been to license nonprofit centers to grow and dispense medical pot.

That state is also looking to marijuana sales to generate some badly needed state revenue. Gov. Lincoln Chafee has proposed making medical marijuana sales (some experts project pot purchases could top $25 million next year) subject to the state sales tax.

In New Jersey, Gov. Christie (who has repeatedly clashed with Malloy over taxes and spending) has helped confirm his far right credentials through his opposition to his state’s medical marijuana law. Last week, New Jersey’s attorney general requested a federal opinion about whether the plan to cultivate and sell pot through six state-licensed facilities would violate federal drug laws.

Lawlor says Christie “has made it very difficult for New Jersey to move forward” with its plans for state-sanctioned sales of pot to patients seeking medical relief. As for the request for a federal legal opinion, Lawlor says it’s “worth noting that the U.S. government has not prosecuted anyone for doing anything [concerning pot] that abides by state law.”

Meanwhile, the selection of the nonprofit operators to run those medical pot centers has been raising eyebrows, largely because three of those chosen are close political allies of Christie. “These are the most politically connected medical marijuana operators in the country,” Chris Goldstein, a New Jersey medical marijuana activist, told the Associated Press.

Connecticut lawmakers and Malloy administration officials are now working on changes to the medical marijuana bill that will answer concerns about where patients with prescriptions can legally obtain pot, either to use directly or to grow themselves. Supporters of the legislation are very optimistic, since a bill nearly identical to the one submitted by Malloy won General Assembly approval two years ago, only to be shot down by then-Gov. M. Jodi Rell.

The other big pot bill, to decriminalize small amounts of grass, cleared the judiciary panel on a 23-15 vote. “There was strong bipartisan support for this,” Lawlor says, “and hopefully the same thing will play out when it gets to the House and Senate.”

Connecticut law now makes possession of small amounts of grass a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine. Few people actually go to prison on minor possession charges, but decriminalization supporters say the state could save millions of dollars in police, prosecution, court and probation costs by eliminating it as a criminal offense.

The bill passed by the judiciary panel would make possession of less than half an ounce of pot an infraction, which means you’d pay a $100 fine for a first offense and could mail it in just as you would a speeding ticket fine. Multiple marijuana infractions could push fines as high as $500.

If you were caught with that amount of grass but were under 21, you could have your driver’s license suspended the same way as if you were nabbed for underage drinking. Anyone under 18 caught with pot could be sent to juvenile court at the discretion of police.

Those penalties weren’t enough to convince Democrats like state Sen. Ed Meyer of Guilford. A former New York prosecutor, Meyer says he remains convinced that pot “is very toxic, very dangerous, particularly for younger people.”

Meyer admits there are good arguments for decriminalization, particularly because it would cut Connecticut’s prison population. “But I believe the good reasons are outweighed by the other side of this,” he says.

Connecticut’s decriminalization bill is modeled on the plan Massachusetts voters approved by referendum in 2008. A recent decision by that state’s highest court indicates Connecticut police may have to change some of their anti-marijuana activities if decriminalization passes here.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that cops in that state can no longer stop and order a person out of a car for a search just because they smell pot smoke coming from his or her car window.

The high court opinion stated that, in the wake of decriminalization, cops need more than just smoke. The judges summed it up this way: “The odor of burned marijuana alone cannot reasonably provide suspicion of criminal activity to justify an exit order.”

Guess we’ve got to add Massachusetts to that marijuana “beacon of light” list.