Category Archives: Drug Policy

Change by Legislature – CT Decrim

Change by Legislature (and Legislative Resource)

Cannabis Decriminalization in Connecticut as a template

Prior to 2011, there had been numerous attempts in the State of Connecticut to remove the criminal penalties attached to cannabis possession. The majority of these proposed bills focused mostly on the legalization of medical cannabis, for which a bill was first passed in 1981. Implementation of the law was never worked out, and it the law itself atrophied, until the late 1990s, when ‘medical marijuana’ became a mainstay issue of Committee hearings, but not up for Assembly vote until its passage ‘again’ in 2012.[1] While the efforts of medical cannabis legalization have ran parallel to criminal justice reforms, it is the intention of this report to focus solely on decriminalization efforts put forth by the State Legislature.

Connecticut’s ‘Decrim’ story is regarded as a new and special case, by policy makers in that the Connecticut legislature was the mechanism for policy change, rather than ballot provision, for the first Decrim by legislature since Alaska in 1975. Undoubtedly our attempts were bolstered by Massachusetts decriminalizing adult possession by a voter referendum in 2008, but employed in Connecticut was is different, and hitherto, unsuccessful for over two decades across the country in all its attempts. Victory via this procedure proved itself a catalyst for similar change in neighboring states, with the Rhode Island (successfully), and New Jersey (Governor veto) following suit in 2012.

After a dormant, ‘tough on crime’ 1980s, the issue was resurrected with Proposed Bill 815;  referred to the Judiciary Committee of the Connecticut General Assembly in the legislative session of 1995.  This bill sought to decrease the penalty for possession of less than one ounce of cannabis by labeling it an infraction.  Individuals found in possession of cannabis would be “guilty of a violation and be fined fifty dollars.”[2] Two years later, a more comprehensive Raised Bill 6991 would come out of the Judiciary Committee.  Among many proposed substitutions and deletions revising State drug policy, this bill sought to decrease penalties for cannabis possession. The objectives of the bill were, first, to determine “substance use, abuse and dependency in the state, client and patient demographics and crime and criminal justice efforts.”  One of the benefits of this approach was that it began to make use of the state’s power to research this issue for policy change.

This bill started a new effort in gathering data for the purpose of policy reform.  Prior to this bill, the issue of cannabis was largely considered a moral political battle.  Raised Bill 6991 looked at the reality of the situation, acknowledging it as a health and judicial “problem.”  The bill also examined the use of prevention, treatment, intervention and education services as alternatives to incarceration and the use of criminal justice resources to address substance use and abuse. Also in the bill was language which questioned the appropriateness, quality and cost effectiveness of substance abuse services (including incarceration) administered by the Judicial Department.[3]  In 2003, legislation was proposed which looked to reduce penalties for simple cannabis possession. Proposed Bill 356 suggested that the penalty for possession of less than four ounces be an infraction, rather than a misdemeanor offense.[4] Another proposed bill that year, 5260, would have made possession punishable by a fine of $150 for a first offense and an additional $100 for each subsequent violation. Neither bill would be raised.[5]

Attempts at decriminalization would be made in 2009 and 2010 with SB 349 and SB 476, both times on estimates that “doing so could save the state more than $11 million in law enforcement costs annually because far fewer people would be sent to state Superior Court to be overseen by prosecutors and probation officials…If marijuana users were issued a ticket that could be paid by mail, they would no longer need to go to court.”[6] Again like the others before it, these bills would die in committee. The legislative language of SB 349 was added to the slate of Cannabis bills in 2011, brought back to life as SB 1014, and with unprecedented activist and legislative support, passed its committee vetting, was voted on favorably in both chambers and signed by the Governor and took effect: 1 July, 2011. [7]

Final approval of this legislation accepts the reality that the current law does more harm than good – both in the impact it has on people’s lives and the burden it places on police, prosecutors and probation officers of the criminal justice system –

Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy

Decriminalization is hardly a new issue—During the 1970’s there was an effort in many states to decriminalize cannabis possession by imposing a civil fine rather than a criminal penalty. During that time, eleven states dropped criminal penalties. Recently, Nevada and Massachusetts decriminalized simple possession. As well, a number of municipalities have taken steps to decriminalize or “deprioritize” marijuana arrests.  Some states, such as Alaska, have “rolled back” their policies, criminalizing cannabis by referendum after a long period of legalization.  Connecticut was the tenth (or eleventh, by unit of measure) approve the decriminalization of cannabis possession in small amounts[8], and now bills of similar nature are proposed in nearly every state in the country. The biggest ‘sell’ in terms of effective lobbying has been conveying the bottom line numbers to legislators, with the facts and research to put their political opinion to the side. The ability to have the testimony and ‘support’ of the state’s legislative research team and other high-profile researchers was integral to that process.

Harvard University Professor Jeffrey Miron believes that “estimated savings in criminal justice resources is likely the minimum savings that would occur under decriminalization”  He believes that “since most of the assumptions underlying this estimate err on the low side,”[9] there is a potentially large, unknown upside.  While the State might not “win the lottery” in decriminalizing cannabis, all indications point to both cost savings and increased revenue.  To best gauge the possible fiscal impact of decriminalized cannabis in Connecticut, it is helpful to look at the effects of other decriminalization efforts around the United States. One of the strongest arguments, cost-savings, was expressed in the work Professor Miron researched nearby; the “Prop. 2” decriminalization measure in Massachusetts. This research is likely the most reliable, in terms of coverage of fiscal impact, using methodology and data sets similar to that of OFA, and concluded that decriminalization of marijuana in Massachusetts would produce an annual savings in law enforcement resources of approximately $ 29. 5 million based on 2006 data.  Miron found that judges and lawyers generally estimated stand-alone arrests at 40% of marijuana possession arrests in Massachusetts. He also found, like OFA, that 33% was a reasonable estimate of the marijuana arrests that would no longer occur due to decriminalization. He also found that 5. 8% of all arrests in Massachusetts were for marijuana possession. He multiplied this by 33% to get 1.9% as the fraction of all arrests that would not occur and result in a savings of criminal justice resources under decriminalization.[10]

According to a 2010 OFA report reviewing Miron’s work, savings in criminal justice resources had three components: “a reduction in police resources because of the reduced number of arrests; a reduction in prosecutorial and judicial resources because of the reduced number of criminal applications, pre-trial hearings, and trials; and a reduction in correctional resources because of the reduced number of prisoners.” OFA notes that Miron found that only the first category was likely to be substantially affected by decriminalization due to the low numbers of people incarcerated solely for marijuana possession, which amounted to about 1.9% of the Massachusetts’ budget for police protection.  It is on that figure that Miron determined the $29.5 million figure. He concludes that this estimate may be low for several reasons, including the earlier mentioned assumption that parole and probation rules will stay the same.[11]

The City of Seattle adopted ballot initiative “I-75” in 2003. The initiative mandated that “the police department and city attorney’s office make the investigation, arrest, and prosecution of marijuana offenders the city’s lowest enforcement priority when the marijuana is intended for adult personal use.” Studied by University of Washington Professors, Beckett and Herbert, the two recently crafted a report which discusses the consequences and costs of marijuana prohibition. Their report concludes that “there were reductions in the number of referrals of marijuana-related incidents from the police department to the city attorney and also a reduction in people charged with marijuana possession by the city attorney, after I-75’s adoption.”[12]

The California decriminalization effort is discussed in a 1988 study published in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs. Prior to the enactment of the Moscone Act in 1976, ¼ of the felony arrests in California were for marijuana, costing the state $100 million annually to process marijuana offenders. The act reduced possession of small amounts of marijuana from a felony to a new type of misdemeanor. The study’s authors, Aldrich and Mikuriya, concluded that California saved at least $ 1 billion between 1976 and 1986 as a result of this change. However, this study discusses the savings associated with “de-felonization” rather than outright decriminalization of cannabis.” [13]
Using metrics similar to Miron’s, the Office of Fiscal Analysis (OFA) showed that there were 9,928 marijuana arrests in Connecticut in 2007, representing 7.0% of total arrests statewide.  The OFA concluded that approximately 33% of those arrests were for possession of less than one ounce of marijuana.  In their findings, OFA saw an estimated 2.3% of total law enforcement resources statewide currently allocated to crimes of cannabis possession. The agency posited a “theoretical savings to state and local law enforcement agencies…estimated to be $9.4 million, resulting from savings associated with police officers no longer having to process arrests for possession of less than one ounce of marijuana.” More likely, this will free up resources for other police actions according to OFA, which concluded that a “savings in this amount may not be realized by state and local law enforcement budgets due to the fact that resources would most likely be reallocated, rather than eliminated.”[14] Besides the potential cost savings, decriminalization would have a positive public safety impact in that it diverts resources from the enforcement of a non-violent crime to other crimes of more pressing importance.

Criminalized cannabis can be shown to pose a cost burden on the courts as well.  Data given in 2009 by OFA estimates a smaller number of Judicial cases under CGS 21a‑279(c).  They approximate 3,200 prosecutions (suspiciously down from the 9,700 in the 2005 data).  With these numbers, OFA assumes “that possession of less than 1 ounce of marijuana accounts for ¼ of these cases, then the annual cost to process them is estimated to be $400,000, including the salaries of 1 Public Defender, 2 State’s Attorneys, a portion of 1 Judge and support staff, expenses and fringe benefits.”  If using their 2005 statistics, the savings potentially exceeds $1,000,000.

Obviously, along with cost burdens of cannabis criminalization on enforcement agency and courts, there is a large fiscal impact on the State prison system.  OFA, using 2009 data found that there were 57 inmates serving a sentence where the controlling charge is CGS 21a-279(c) (possession of less than four ounces of marijuana).  At the time of the data collection, an additional 17 offenders were being held pretrial.  The OFA then worked with the Miron metrics to conclude that “possession of less than one ounce of marijuana accounts for ¼ of these individuals, and assuming an average cost of $44,895 per year per inmate (including employee fringe benefit costs) the resulting savings would be $831,000 per year.”[15] These figures average $121 per day, having risen since 2003 when estimates by the Department of Corrections and the Office of Fiscal Analysis concluded $76 and $96, respectively.[16]  These numbers will theoretically rise higher over time with inflation, further increasing costs to the State and taxpayer.

Savings could also be realized in the 1,300 probationers under supervision in the community who were convicted of possession of less than 4 ounces of marijuana as their primary charge.  In particular, the estimate assumes no trials on charges of marijuana possession and no prison terms due to marijuana possession.  The estimate presented here takes as given that current rules regarding parole and probation would remain in effect under decriminalization.  Under current rules, Miron notes, “regarding parole and probation, a positive urine test for drugs can send a parolee or probationer to prison, regardless of the original offense…these rules might change under legalization, implying additional reductions in government expenditure.”[17]  Miron also believes that “it is plausible these rules would be relaxed under decriminalization. This would keep non-trivial numbers of parolees and probationers out of prison, with substantial savings for the government budget.[18] The OFA again assumes that “possession of less than 1 ounce of marijuana accounts for ¼ of these individuals” and “the estimated, annual cost to supervise these offenders in the community is $424,000, including probation officer salaries, fringe benefits, expenses and contracted services.  Again, these are conservative estimates, and the potential savings rises greatly, depending on the data used and the interpretation thereof.

‘Armed’ with knowledge, the fiscal argument was finally  proven compelling enough to be given favorable treatment in a legislature; a trend developed in isolation of Drug Policy Organizations and high profile ballot campaigns, creating a fifth column of support, consisting of compassionate and informed citizen legislators.  With Connecticut as a template for other states to achieve policy change, the model can be transferred, rapidly to other legislatures, until prohibition is merely a topic for history (again).  Thus far, nearly every state has, at the very least, broached the subject of cannabis decriminalization in the committees of their legislatures.  Decriminalization—and now legalization, bolstered by victorious ballot initiatives in Colorado and Washington—are popular subjects that get mentioned both by word of mouth, and in the media. As well, this issue has come to affect everyone, or at the very least, someone they know. Cannabis is the most popular illegal substance, with nearly 42% of the population estimated to be experimenting with it in their lifetime.  Proponents argue that decriminalization and eventual legalization are measures that have become necessary to “right the wrong” caused by prohibition.[19] In today’s budget crisis, regardless of one’s opinion of the drug itself, decriminalization of cannabis is perhaps the simplest legislation with the quickest turn around in cost savings and potential revenue.


[2] State of Connecticut, Proposed Bill 815, An Act Concerning Marijuana and Cannabis Type Substances (1995).

[3] State of Connecticut, Raised Bill 6991, An Act Concerning Drug Policy (1997).

[4] State of Connecticut, Proposed Bill 356, An Act Concerning the Penalty for Possession of a Small Amount of Marijuana (2003).

[5] Norman-Eady, Sandra, State of Connecticut, Office of Legislative Resarch. “2004-R-0264  Decriminalization of Marijuana.  February 25, 2004

[6] Keating, Christopher.  Hartford Courant “Judiciary Committee Votes To Decriminalize Marijuana.” March 31, 2009 (Accessed April 23, 2010)


[8] Norman-Eady, Sandra, State of Connecticut, Office of Legislative Resarch. “94-R-1089  Legalization of Illicit Drugs”  December 22, 1994.


[9] Miron, Jeffrey.  Harvard University. “The Effect of Marijuana Decriminalization on the Budgets of Massachusetts Governments” (October, 2008).

[10] Norman-Eady, Sandra, State of Connecticut, Office of Legislative Resarch. “94-R-1089  Legalization of Illicit Drugs”  December 22, 1994.

[11] Soncia Coleman, State of Connecticut, Office of Legislative Research. “Criminal Justice Cost Savings Associated with Marijuana Decriminalization.” February 17, 2010.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[13] Norman-Eady, Sandra, State of Connecticut, Office of Legislative Resarch. “94-R-1089  Legalization of Illicit Drugs”  December 22, 1994. (Accessed April 22, 2010)

[14] Murphy, Michael, Alan Calandro, Christopher Wetzel.  State of Connecticut, Office of Fiscal Analysis. “OFA-1575, Fiscal Impact of reducing the penalty for possession of a small amount of marijuana.” March 23, 2009.

[15] Murphy, Michael, Alan Calandro, Christopher Wetzel.  State of Connecticut, Office of Fiscal Analysis. “OFA-1575, Fiscal Impact of reducing the penalty for possession of a small amount of marijuana.” March 23, 2009.

[16] Wolkoff, Adam, State of Connecticut, Office of Legislative Research.  “2006-R-0113  Marijuana Statistics.” February 6, 2006.

[17] Miron, Jeffrey.  Harvard University. “The Budgetary Implications of Prohibition.”(December, 2008)

[18] Miron, Jeffrey.  Harvard University. “The Effect of Marijuana Decriminalization on the Budgets of Massachusetts Governments” (October, 2008).  (Accessed April 23, 2010)

[19] Norman-Eady, Sandra, State of Connecticut, Office of Legislative Resarch. “94-R-1089  Legalization of Illicit Drugs”  December 22, 1994.

Free the Leaf

Free the Leaf