HARTFORD, Conn. -- The Connecticut Senate narrowly approved legislation on Saturday that decriminalizes the possession of small amounts of marijuana.
The measure passed after Democratic Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman broke an 18-to-18 tie vote as the president of the state Senate. It now moves to the House of Representatives for final legislative action.
While opponents of the bill said it sends the wrong message, proponents said the legislation will help young people arrested for marijuana possession to avoid a criminal record that could hurt their chances to find a good job or enter college.
"It puts into jeopardy the future endeavors of such young people," said Sen. Eric Coleman, D-Bloomfield, co-chairman of the General Assembly's Judiciary Committee. "Decriminalizing the use and possession of small amounts of marijuana is a better course and in the best interest of young people whose judgment may not be fully matured."
Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney, D-New Haven, stressed that lawmakers were not legalizing marijuana.
"We are not enforcing the use of illegal drugs. We strongly disapprove of their use, but we're trying to realign their punishment that is more appropriate," he said, adding that the state should be focusing its scarce criminal justice resources on dangerous offenders.
Under the bill, possession of less than a half-ounce of marijuana would no longer be a misdemeanor. Instead, it would result in a $150 fine for a first offense and a fine ranging from $200 to $500 for subsequent offenses. Those under 21 years old would face a 60-day driver's license suspension, similar to the existing penalty for possessing alcohol.
Under current law, possession of marijuana is a misdemeanor, punishable by a possible jail term and larger fines: $1,000 for a first offense and $3,000 for subsequent offenses.
The bill also requires anyone 18 years old or younger who is caught with less than a half-ounce to be referred to the state's juvenile courts.
During the debate, Sen. Toni Boucher, R-Wilton, an outspoken opponent of any efforts to legalize marijuana, persuaded the majority Democrats to further amend the bill to require someone caught three times with less than a half-ounce to seek drug treatment. Boucher voiced concern about the potential ill health effects from marijuana usage. She said she's been urged by families who've lost children to drug addiction to oppose the decriminalization bill.
"When we do this, and it has been shown in other states that have gone down this path, there is both an increase in use and an increase in crime," said Boucher, who also opposes another bill that would fully legalize the medical use of marijuana. The fate of that legislation remains in doubt as lawmakers face a midnight adjournment on Wednesday.
Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, R-Fairfield, said he opposed the legislation based on personal experience. He told the story of his older sister Lucie, who became addicted to drugs in the 1980s, went to drug rehab and has been clean and sober ever since.
McKinney said marijuana led his sister to use cocaine and other drugs.
"For me, a policy that lessens the severity of drug use is a bad one," he said. "I don't believe we should just give up."
McKinney said there are already options for young people to clear their records from a marijuana possession charge. They can apply for youthful offender status, a program that eventually clears the conviction from a young person's record. Adults also have an opportunity to apply for a similar program called Accelerated Rehabilitation.
Shortly after the bill passed, Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, a former prosecutor, urged the House of Representatives to pass the decriminalization bill before the session ends. He called it a "commonsense" reform to the criminal justice system.
Malloy said the state is "doing more harm than good when we prosecute people who are caught using marijuana -- needlessly stigmatizing them in a way they would not if they were caught drinking underage."