Decriminalized: Yes (for small amounts)
Connecticut’s path to full cannabis legalization is being paved by the passage of a decriminalization measure in 2011, and the legalization of medical marijuana a year later. In 2015, two more bills were introduced in the House that would have fully legalized recreational marijuana. The authors are Rep. Edwin Vargas and Rep. Juan Candelaria, who were responding to Connecticut voters’ increasing support of recreational cannabis, which was at 63 percent according to a 2015 Quinnipiac University poll.
These two lawmakers also see legalization as a convenient way to cut down on Connecticut’s growing deficit. States like Colorado, which legalized recreational cannabis, already raised tens of millions of dollars in tax revenue since ending prohibition on a statewide level.
“Legalizing recreational marijuana could go a long way to help our economy,” Vargas told the Hartford Courant. "For the most part, people support it. I'm not sure they think that politically it would fly yet, but privately everyone seems to agree with it. I'm not sure people will have the courage to do that on the record."
Rep. Vargas added that, if the bills failed to pass this year, they will likely come back in the next session.
With the passage of the 2011 decriminalization bill, those caught in possession of less than a half ounce will no longer face a misdemeanor and criminal record, instead receiving a civil infraction (much like a traffic ticket). It entails a fine of $150 for first-time offenses and up to $500 for subsequent offenses.
“Let me make it clear—we are not legalizing the use of marijuana. In modifying this law, we are recognizing that the punishment should fit the crime, and acknowledging the effects of its application,” said Governor Dannel Malloy in a statement regarding decriminalization. “There is no question that the state’s criminal justice resources could be more effectively utilized for convicting, incarcerating and supervising violent and more serious offenders.”
For now, Connecticut’s growing, yet tightly controlled, medical marijuana (MMJ) program is facing the problem many states with MMJ programs face, that is, having thousands of patients with only a handful of doctors willing to risk openly certifying patients to obtain a federally banned substance. In September 2014, medical cannabis became available at six state-sanctioned dispensaries staffed with registered pharmacists. The facilities can dispense cannabis for specific conditions after the patient registers with the state and visits a doctor willing to certify the patient to buy up to two and a half ounces per month.
“It’s not California,” said Colin Souney, who uses cannabis to treat his post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), according to the New Haven Register. “There’s no doctor sitting in the dispensary waiting.”
With the small number of doctors willing to certify, many turn to the Internet to locate a doctor. There are 239 doctors signed up with the MMJ program, but only eight certify the vast majority of patients, says John Nicolazzo, co-owner of referral website MarijuanaDoctors.com.
“The reason we exist (is) there is a very low amount of physicians that are participating in the cannabis program,” Nicolazzo said. “Whether Connecticut, New York or anywhere else.” Of the nearly 5,000 certified patients in Connecticut, more than 4000 of them are seen by doctors registered through his website.
While there are efforts to increase the numbers of both doctors and dispensaries, for now those registered must choose only one of the six dispensaries to get their medicine, leaving many MMJ users to find other sources for cannabis. Which is why many state lawmakers see the full legalization of cannabis as an answer to the many problems of prohibition, not only of access, but also the cashing-in on an industry left mostly in the dark.
“We need to start looking outside the box,” said Rep. Candelaria to the Hartford Courant. “Are there concerns? There are concerns. For us in Connecticut, we need to move forward. We can set an example for other states, and I think we will be moving in the right direction.”