Medical Marijuana Moves Closer to Reality

The marijuana landscape, both in Connecticut and across the nation, is changing kind of fast these days:

- A state legislative committee last week put its final stamp of approval on proposed regulations for Connecticut's new medical marijuana system. The vote clears the way for state officials to choose which pot growers and dispensers they want to license, which means medical pot could be in the hands of patients in less than a year.

- At the federal level, the Obama administration has now ruled out any court challenges to state pot legalization laws. Colorado and Oregon have already approved recreational pot use. Eighteen other states and the District of Columbia have already passed laws legalizing marijuana in one form or another.

- And the most recent statistics available indicate Connecticut's decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana seems to be easing the pressure on the state's criminal justice system. It may even be saving taxpayers some money.

The approval of new rules for this state's medical marijuana system wasn't exactly a surprise. State Department of Consumer Protection gurus have been working on the regulations for 15 months, and made something like 100 quick changes this month when questions were raised by legislative lawyers.

The legislature's Regulation Review Committee, despite lots of questions from some skeptical Republicans and Democrats, passed the proposals on the first try.

Consumer Protection Commissioner William M. Rubenstein said he hopes "to make our selections for both producer and dispensary facility licenses around the first of the year."

Some optimists believe that means the system could be up and operating and handing out medical pot to patients by the spring of 2014.

But Michael Lawlor, Gov. Dannel Malloy's top criminal justice adviser, thinks it may take a bit longer.

"I'm guessing like a year from now," he says. "I don't know how long it takes to grow a marijuana plant, but it sounds like these producers are well organized and will be ready to roll." Lawlor adds these words of caution: "It is a bureaucracy [that's making these licensing decisions], so it always takes longer than you think."

The game plan as set out by the General Assembly last year is for Rubenstein's folks to choose between three and 10 growers, and potential pot producers have been lining up for the chance to get into Connecticut's medical marijuana market.

Watertown, New Britain, and Middletown are just a sampling of the cities hoping to get a lucrative grow facility approved for their communities. (Ansonia city officials recently decided they don't want any medical marijuana growers or dispensaries in their little burg.)

The wannabe pot producers will have to put up a $25,000 application fee, and the lucky few that are chosen will be asked to pay a $75,000 license fee and prove they have $2 million in an escrow account.

The dispensaries will be located within participating pharmacies and patients will need a doctor's recommendation to get medical pot.

So far, more than 880 people have registered as medical marijuana patients and about 600 have been certified to legally possess pot for medical purposes. Only people who can prove they are suffering from cancer, Parkinson's disease, post-traumatic stress disorder, HIV, AIDS or any of the several other ailments listed in the regulations qualify for the program.

One of the big questions that critics like state Sen. Leonard Fasano, R-North Haven, kept asking during the legislative committee's meeting last week was what would the feds do about Connecticut's medical pot program?

The Obama administration had been giving conflicting signals about its intentions on pot for more than a year, including warnings that it might crack down on state-approved grow and dispensing facilities. That all changed last week.

U.S. Justice Department officials announced they won't make any court challenges to state laws legalizing marijuana as long as those state programs don't undermine federal pot "priority enforcement areas."

Those include stopping marijuana sales to kids, preventing interstate marijuana trafficking and going after cartel activities, and prosecuting violence associated with pot.

The new policy statement brought sighs of relief from officials in all the states that have legalized medical marijuana or the recreational use of pot. It also appears to follow up on the Obama administration's recent change of course on the drug war.

Attorney General Eric Holder indicated the feds needed to change their attitudes toward drug-crime sentencing, in part because federal prisons are overflowing with people convicted of nonviolent drug crimes. He called for a review of federal mandatory sentences for low-level offenders.

That recognition follows the trends of states like Connecticut, which back in 2011 decriminalized possession of less than a half-ounce of pot. Instead of potential jail terms, people caught with small amounts of grass are now being given tickets for an infraction.

According to the latest state judicial statistics, Connecticut police issued 6,808 marijuana possession tickets in 2012. So far this year, the number of pot infractions was in the neighborhood of 3,800.

That translates into thousands of potential criminal marijuana arrests, prosecutions, court appearances, and probationary procedures that haven't happened. (Even under the old system, very few people in Connecticut actually went to prison for possession of small amounts of marijuana, but they were subject to potential criminal penalties.)

All of which would seem to be good news for Connecticut's criminal justice system.

State officials agree that criminal arrests and court cases have been dropping, and acknowledge that pot decriminalization appears to be playing a role.

"It's probably true that [the decriminalization of pot] has resulted in less work for prosecutors, judges and probation officers," Lawlor says, adding that fewer pot arrests make up "one piece in a larger puzzle."

Crime rates in Connecticut and the U.S. have been dropping for years.

Between 2008 and 2010, the average number of criminal arrests in this state for the month of July was 10,937. The total for July 2013 in Connecticut was 9,309, according to state reports.

"We are seeing an overall reduction in the number of arrests our police departments are making," says Connecticut's chief administrative judge for criminal matters, Robert J. Devlin Jr.

He points out that those pot violations would amount to only about five percent of the total number of criminal cases being filed in state courts each year. And he says not all people who are ticketed for marijuana infractions just pay their fines.

Devlin says a certain number of those ticketed for pot ask for alternative programs that will allow that citation to be cleared from their records.

At the same time, Lawlor says reducing the number of pot cases that end up in court means the criminal justice system can devote more time and resources to "the guys who kill and hurt people."

"In part it's a savings [for taxpayers], and in part it allows us to focus on higher risk, more dangerous offenders," says Lawlor.

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