Move To Change Pot Laws Gathers Steam

Move To Change Pot Laws Gathers Steam
Posted by CN Staff on February 07, 2009 at 17:48:56 PT
By Jason R. Vallee, Record-Journal Staff
Source: Meriden Record-Journal
Connecticut -- Several state lawmakers have taken a stance on marijuana that they hope would alleviate the number of criminal cases in the state's judicial system: decriminalizing possession of less than an ounce of it.While legislators hope that doing so would have a positive effect on the state budget and judicial systems, law enforcement officials are concerned that decriminalizing the drug would lead to social confusion, create enforcement problems for officers and counter efforts to relay the message that drug use can carry a variety of negative effects.
"We are traveling down a dangerous road. Marijuana is a stepping stone to other drugs, stronger drugs, and our officers have enough work as it is. Why add to the problem?" said George Caffrey, a former Meriden police chief who is now a sociology professor at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven.Earlier this year state Sens. Martin Looney and Toni Harp, both D-New Haven, presented a bill that would decriminalize marijuana possession for personal use. The legislature is also considering a proposal from Rep. Mary Mushinksy, D-Wallingford, to legalize marijuana for medical use.If the senate proposal passes, possessing up to one ounce of marijuana would become a ticketed infraction. The measure is similar to a law Massachusetts passed last November.Amounts larger than one ounce or offenses associated with use including driving under the influence would still lead to an arrest and criminal prosecution.Harp, co-chair of the Appropriations Committee, and Looney, the senate majority leader, have said they are not in favor of legalization, rather their bill would address issues including how to treat low-level users, many of whom are currently incarcerated for their offenses.Harp and Looney said the system punishes many marijuana users with prison sentences that do nothing to rehabilitate the individual, which is costly for the state and ineffective in preventing repeat offenses.State Rep. Mary G. Fritz, D-Wallingford, has always been opposed to laws that would legalize marijuana, but said this bill merits consideration."From my perspective, I think it's a great idea," she said Thursday. "Instead of putting these guys in prison at a cost of $40,000 per year because they had a nickel or dime bag, the better option is to mandate rehab or have them involved in community service."Fritz said the judicial system is overloaded with cases involving low-level users - those with less than an ounce who are not dealing - and in many cases these people are not involved in any other drug use.But Fritz also believes marijuana can be a gateway drug that leads users to more potent and dangerous narcotics, an argument that Caffrey and other law enforcement officials believe is exactly why marijuana shouldn't be decriminalized.Caffrey said that regardless of quantity, marijuana is a drug and decriminalizing it would only make the job of law enforcement more difficult.With the economy already in rough condition and crime expected to increase as a result, Caffrey said now is not the time to burden officers with new laws, especially ones which could create a gray area over whether the drug is legal.But Bruce Mirken, communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project, is not convinced that lessening the penalty for low-level users would place any additional burden on officers.In fact, he said, the drug is far less dangerous in some ways than drugs that are currently legal.The Marijuana Policy Project is a national organization that advocates legalizing medical marijuana and decriminalization of the drug for personal use.Mirken notes that there has never been a documented case in which someone has died as a result of a marijuana overdose. He further stated that even acetaminophen, the active ingredient in Tylenol, is directly responsible for an average of 450 overdose deaths yearly, a statistic supported by a study published in 2004 in the Journal of Hepatology, the study of the liver, gallbladder and bile ducts.Meriden Deputy Police Chief Timothy Topulos, a 20-year law enforcement official, said that he would certainly be open to an academic discussion on the subject, but because of his experiences could not support decriminalization at this time."Personally, I feel that we are already living in a society that suffers from moral and ethical erosion. To decriminalize drugs and particularly marijuana, which is known as a gateway drug, is to send a dangerous message to our children and one that is contradictory to what we as parents, law enforcement officials and teachers have been working very hard to send to deter such activities," he said.Topulos also expressed concerns that decriminalization could confuse children by creating a gray area where some drugs would be seen as "completely illegal" while marijuana in small amounts would be acceptable from a social perspective.Cromwell Police Chief Anthony Salvatore, the legislative liaison for the Connecticut Police Chiefs Association, echoed those concerns, and has said he's not in favor of decriminalization.The social aspect is something that would also become a challenge for Drug Abuse Resistance Education instructors and health teachers, said Southington Police Sgt. Lowell DePalma.DePalma, who is a certified DARE instructor for middle school students and the town's DARE program coordinator, said decriminalizing marijuana would make it more difficult for instructors who have the responsibility of relaying laws and the effects of using substances to students."It's something the students would certainly bring up, whether it's legal or not, and it's not a simple thing to try and explain," he said. "It would also confuse the children and distract them from the true goal, which is to explain the dangers of drugs, whether marijuana, alcohol, tobacco or something else."Some law enforcement officials also expressed concerns that decriminalization could convince some people to try marijuana knowing that the penalty is only a fine, and could lead to more cases of people driving under the influence.A series of studies published in the New England Journal of Medicine during the late 1990s showed that drug-related intoxication is already a problem. The study conducted drug and alcohol tests on 150 of 175 drivers who were pulled over for reckless driving in ways that indicated intoxication to police.Of the study group, 50 tested positive for having smoked marijuana, and those who tested positive for marijuana were found to "sway or stagger" and had other coordination problems.One challenge that comes with trying to monitor marijuana intoxication is that, unlike alcohol, there are no tests that can determine what an individual's level of marijuana intoxication is.Companies like Rapid Drug Detection produce breathalyzer type machines, but the machines are not exact and studies show the most powerful machines can only distinguish whether marijuana has been smoked within the past few days, not whether the driver is "high" at that point in time.Still some law officials including Topulos said the true goal for police is to get intoxicated drivers off the streets, and said decriminalization of marijuana would not affect their ongoing efforts.Mirken also argues that driving under the influence is a decision people make knowing the laws, and said he doesn't believe decriminalizing marijuana would cause any more of a problem than already exists.Regardless of what comes from the discussion, law enforcement officials including DePalma and Lt. Marc Mikulski of Wallingford said their departments would enforce laws based on however the state's statutes are written."If decriminalized, marijuana would still be an illegal drug," DePalma said. "The way the system works we would still be giving violators a ticket. The only difference is, in small amounts, they would be the ones to determine whether they want to pay the fine or go through the court process."Source: Meriden Record-Journal, The (CT)Author: Jason R. Vallee, Record-Journal StaffPublished: February 7, 2009Copyright: 2009, The Record-Journal Publishing Co.Contact: letters record-journal.comWebsite: -- Cannabis Archives
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