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Connecticut Legislature Considering Overhaul of Drug Laws


May-June 1997

A major revision of Connecticut's drug laws that would shift the emphasis from punishment to prevention and treatment is being considered by the state legislature (Maxine Bernstein, "'Drug Policy' Bill, Promoting Treatment Over Imprisonment, Moves to Senate," Hartford Courant, April 18, 1997, p. A7; Christopher Wren, "Hartford Mulls An Overhaul of Drug Laws," New York Times, April 21, 1997, p. B1).

Proposals being considered by the legislature include:

"We're beginning to understand that substance abuse is not just a criminal justice issue; it's a public health issue," said State Senator Toni N. Harp (D-New Haven), co-chairman of the Public Health Committee. "The more we criminalize the problem, the more criminals we have to deal with. It's far cheaper and far more effective to get them treatment."

The Chief State's Attorney, John M. Bailey, said that reducing the penalty for possessing small amounts of marijuana would send the wrong message to the state's children at a time when adolescent drug use is increasing. Bailey also opposed dropping the mandatory minimum sentence of three years imposed on non-addicted drug offenders of sales within 1,500 of a school, day care center or public housing project. "Why change the law when we've cut cocaine use 50% in the last 10 years?" asked Bailey. [Mr. Bailey has found a way to oppose the revision of Connecticut's drug laws no matter which direction the drug use trend is heading. -- RCT] Senator Thomas F. Upson (R-Waterbury) expressed his objection simply: "Either we're being tough or we're not."

The revisions are based on three reports: two by legislative commissions, including the Connecticut Law Revision Commission (CLRC) and a program review and investigations committee, and another by the Connecticut Alcohol and Drug Policy Council, which is appointed by the governor. The CLRC's director, David Biklen, said the commission was asked to review drug policy alternatives and submit suggestions for Connecticut that did not include legalization. The CLRC studied the issues for two years and submitted its 120-report in January (Matthew Daly, "Time to Rethink State's Strategy in Drug War, Reports Say," Hartford Courant, March 12, 1997, p. A3).

The measures are being considered in order to reduce the cost of imprisonment. "If there's a major change in Connecticut, it won't be because politicians are more enlightened," said House Chair of the Judiciary Committee Mike P. Lawlor (D-East Haven). "It's because we don't have enough money to spend on our current policy." Lawlor said Connecticut spends more money operating its prison system (about $400 million a year) than its public institutions of higher learning (see "State Budgets Are Funding Prisons at the Expense of Higher Education. ... " NewsBriefs, March-April 1997). The state's prison population has grown from about 3,800 inmates in 1980 to about 15,000, nearly 25% of whom are serving sentences for possessing or selling drugs. Biklen says it costs $25,000 a year to incarcerate a drug offender, compared to the $8,000 to $10,000 to pay for drug treatment for offenders. Lawlor told NewsBriefs that the revisions seek to focus more criminal justice resources on violent crime, as opposed to non-violent crime.

Connecticut Governor John G. Rowland (R) said he supports more prevention and treatment programs, but does not support reducing the penalties against drug offenders. "We're after the drug pushers, but the drug users we're trying to help," said Rowland. A task force appointed by Rowland estimates that drug abuse costs Connecticut $2.96 billion a year in medical and criminal justice expenses, and lost worker productivity.

A provision dropped from the drug law revision package included a bill to create a system to supply marijuana for medical use, which was approved by the General Assembly's Public Health Committee, but was defeated in the Judiciary Committee (Associated Press, "Medical use of marijuana clears legislative panel," New Haven Register (Metro Edition), April 4, 1997). Connecticut has a medical marijuana law, passed in 1981, which allows doctors to prescribe the drug to cancer and glaucoma patients, but no legal supply of cannabis exists. The bill would have authorized seeking a waiver from the DEA to allow the state to operate controlled medical marijuana farms. In addition, a proposal to provide heroi to hard-core addicts, modeled after the program in England, was dropped from the overhaul package.

The New York Times editorial board was supportive of Connecticut's proposed drug law revisions. "While New York continues to stuff its prisons with drug offenders, the Connecticut Legislature is considering a more sensible approach. ... " the paper stated (Editorial, "Connecticut's Sensible War on Drugs," New York Times, April 24, 1997, p. A34).

According to the Judiciary Committee Office, the bill is now on the Senate calendar.

Connecticut General Assembly's Judiciary Committee - (860) 240-0530.

Rep. Mike Lawlor's Office - (203) 469-9725.