The biggest problem Connecticut cops may have with decriminalization of marijuana could be finding enough “certified scales.”
After the new legislation takes effect on July 1, police will need a surefire system for determining whether some dude has more than half an ounce of pot. Less than that, and they simply hand out a ticket for a $150 fine; more than that, and it's still a criminal offense.
“For one roach, it's obviously less than half an ounce,” says Cromwell Police Chief Anthony J. Salvatore, legislative co-chair for the Connecticut Chiefs of Police Association. The problem will come, he explains, when an officer finds someone with an uncertain amount of weed in a baggie.
“We need a certified scale [to exactly measure the amount of pot] in case we do go to court,” says Salvatore.
One reason Salvatore and other Connecticut law enforcement types are so unconcerned is that police in Massachusetts haven't had much of a problem since their state decriminalized pot back in 2008.
Sgt. John Delaney of the Springfield Police Department says the biggest hassle for police in his city has been a bit more paperwork in some cases. He also doesn't believe the change in Massachusetts law has increased the number of potheads or affected how publicly they're smoking weed. “As far as more people openly smoking, I haven't seen that,” Delaney says.
The Connecticut decriminalization bill cleared the General Assembly during the final days of its 2011 session. After squeaking through the state Senate (Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman had to break an 18-18 tie vote in favor of decriminalization), the legislation sailed through the state House by a 90-57 margin.
Gov. Dannel Malloy proposed the “decrim” bill and plans to sign the bill into law as soon as it reaches his desk.
Another bill, to legalize the use of medical marijuana in Connecticut, didn't make it past the opposition of some hard-assed Republican opponents. First, it was downgraded to a study of medical marijuana, and then the matter was dropped because the debate would have taken too long.
Michael Lawlor, a former lawmaker and Malloy's top criminal justice adviser, says he's sure that study can be done without formal legislation.
There are some differences between decriminalization in Massachusetts and Connecticut. North of the state line, less than an ounce is nothing more than a ticket and a $100 fine for a first offense. Above that limit will get you a misdemeanor criminal arrest and a $500 fine. (That one-ounce measure would also make it easier for Massachusetts cops to decide whether or not to arrest someone on a criminal charge — more than an ounce is a whole lot of weed.)
In this state, after July 1, the threshold will be half an ounce. If you're caught with less than that amount, the fine schedule goes from $150 for a first ticket and $200 to $500 for repeated busts. Like speeding tickets, a pot infraction fine can be paid by mail without a court appearance.
If you're under 21 and get caught with less than half an ounce in Connecticut, your driver's license will also be suspended for 60 days.
The Connecticut legislation will also require that 16-year-olds (and 17-year-olds as of July 2012) who are found with small amounts of pot be referred to the juvenile court system. Lawmakers said they didn't want a teenager to simply be able to pay a fine without their parents ever finding out they'd been picked up for pot.
While different parts of Connecticut's decrim bill are harsher than the Massachusetts system, it's still far better than this state's current criminal penalty of up to a year in jail and up to a $1,000 fine for getting caught with anything under four ounces of grass.
Another difference between the two states involves what kind of evidence police need to search a person or a car when they suspect marijuana use.
Earlier this year, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that, since marijuana possession was decriminalized, cops in that state needed more of a reason to conduct a search than simply smelling pot smoke.
The decision came in a case where police smelled some dope coming from a car parked in front of a fire hydrant, ordered a Boston resident named Benjamin Cruz out of his car, searched the vehicle and found some grass. He was charged with a bunch of violations, including possession with intent to sell and having a controlled drug in a school zone.
“Without at least some other additional fact to bolster a reasonable suspicion of actual criminal activity, the odor of burned marijuana alone cannot reasonably provide suspicion of criminal activity to justify a [police] exit order,” according to the ruling by Massachusetts' highest court.
Salvatore says the legislation passed by the General Assembly was structured so that Connecticut police won't need the same degree of suspicion in order to conduct a search. “We didn't want to lose that right for our officers,” he says. “With probable cause, we can still search a person or a vehicle passenger compartment.”
Massachusetts policemen like Delaney say decriminalization simply isn't that big a deal for them. He points out that busting people for small amounts of weed was never a top priority in his town.
“I spent 20 years with narcotics, and made more than 5,000 arrests,” says Delaney, who is executive aide to Springfield's police commissioner. “I could count on one hand the number of arrests I made just for possession of marijuana.”
According to Delaney, the only time cops in Springfield would make a possession arrest is when they wanted to take down a dealer. He says they would watch a sale, arrest the buyer and then turn around and bust the guy who'd sold the dope, turning it into a single, easy-to-prove case.
Now, a cop in Massachusetts looking to make a possession bust has to check the person's ID, write out a ticket, confiscate and tag the pot, then write it all up back at the office. “It's a little bit cumbersome,” Delaney says, “but we're managing.”
Salvatore doesn't think the new pot law will change much down in this state. “The difference is I won't have to bring the person [charged with possession of less than half an ounce] to fingerprint and mug them,” he says. (To “mug” someone, in police jargon, means to take their picture, rather than steal their wallet.)
Nor is Salvatore losing sleep about the possibility that decriminalization will trigger a wave of new marijuana users.
As he points out, “It's still against the law.”