HARTFORD ——By the slimmest of margins, the Senate on Saturday approved a bill that decriminalizes the possession of small amounts of marijuana. The vote was 18-18, with Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman tipping the balance with the tie-breaking vote.
After years of false starts, Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and other supporters were able to assemble a coalition that championed decriminalization as both a cost-saving measure and a more appropriate way to punish young people who experiment with the drug.
"We've spent billions of dollars building more prisons and prison cells, and put greater emphasis on punishment with little to no emphasis on rehabilitation, and the numbers of people being convicted and sentenced did not decrease,'' said Sen. Eric Coleman, a Democrat from Bloomfield and co-chairman of the legislature's judiciary committee.
"We're trying something a little different in hopes that results will be better,'' Coleman added.
Much of the three-hour debate was dominated by critics expounding on the dangers of marijuana. Sen. Toni Boucher, a Republican from Wilton and an outspoken opponent, cited several studies showing the pernicious effects of cannabis on the brain and the body.
But as is the case with many discussions at the Capitol, lawmakers' positions on marijuana policy are seen through the prism of personal experience.
Sen. John McKinney of Fairfield, the House Republican leader, spoke of his sister Lucie's cocaine addiction, which he said was rooted in her use of marijuana.
She has been clean and sober for years, McKinney said, but "she has an addiction. … That informs my decision on issues related to drugs. … Marijuana is a gateway drug, unlike alcohol, unlike tobacco. … It is different."
Sen. Edward Meyer, a Democrat from Guilford, broke with the majority of his own party and opposed the bill, largely, he said, because of the devastation marijuana has wrought on his own family.
Meyer cited two relatives, whom he did not name but said were not his children, and detailed how their lives were wrecked by the drug. One is a 30-year-old dysfunctional schizophrenic who lives with his parents and "has no good habits," Meyer said. The other, he said, is a 19-year-old user with severe bipolar disorder, triggered by heavy drug use.
"I know that it has got some good cost benefits,'' Meyer said of the bill. "But the negative health benefits ... I think suggest on balance that we should reject this bill and look for other ways to raise that money."
Meyer was a key vote on a bill whose chances for passage were shaky at best just a few weeks ago.
Malloy, who lobbied hard for the measure, applauded the passage and urged the House to do the same.
"The punishment should fit the crime," Malloy said in a statement Saturday evening. "Let's be clear — we are not making marijuana legal and we are not allowing people who use it and get caught to avoid the repercussions. But we are acknowledging the reality that we are doing more harm than good when we prosecute people who are caught using marijuana — needlessly stigmatizing them in a way we would not if they were caught drinking underage, for example, and disproportionately affecting minorities.
"As a former prosecutor in Brooklyn, my opinion on this issue was formed a long time ago," he said. "While our focus will continue to be on prevention and juvenile offenders will be referred to court officials for treatment, this proposal frees up more of our police and prosecutors to fight violent crime."
Three other Democrats — Sens. Joan Hartley of Waterbury, Paul Doyle of Wethersfield and Gayle Slossberg of Milford — joined Meyer and the Republicans in opposition.
The discussion was both passionate and clinical, with Wyman's tie-breaking vote lending a bit of drama to the proceedings. McKinney, who was attending a cancer fundraiser in Fairfield and was absent for most of the debate, arrived in the final minutes to make the vote 18-18.
Boucher, who led the Republican opposition to the bill, noted the inconsistency of a state that is considering banning hookah lounges and passing tough new penalties for those who use cellphones while driving yet is poised to lessen the punishment of what she views as a toxic and highly addictive substance.