By STEPHEN DOCKERY, Associated Press
HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) _ Marijuana advocates are targeting Connecticut as one of the states most likely to approve use of the drug for medical reasons, moving to build on momentum from the legislature’s recent decriminalization of small amounts of it.
While advocates prepare to step up lobbying efforts, opponents are trying to hold the line on a drug the federal government deems dangerous and illegal.
Dan Riffle, a legislative analyst from the Marijuana Policy Project, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy organization, said Connecticut is one of the five states his organization will target because they’re likely to enact more permissive pot laws.
The others are California, Colorado, Rhode Island and Vermont. With a governor and legislature that have shown support for marijuana legislation, Riffle said, the timing is right in Connecticut.
Republican Rep. Penny Bacchiochi, who supported a medical marijuana measure that failed in the last legislative session, said prospects for approval next year are bright.
“It’s true we do have the votes in both chambers and the governor said he’d sign it,” said Bacchiochi, a widow from Somers who risked arrest 20 years ago to obtain marijuana for her husband when he was suffering from bone cancer.
The bill to decriminalize marijuana is awaiting the signature of Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy. It would reduce the punishment for possession of less than a half-ounce of marijuana to fines of $150 for a first offense, instead of the current misdemeanor with higher fines and a possible jail term.
A medical marijuana bill advanced until the end of the term along with decriminalization, and bill supporters said time constraints forced legislators to choose one over the other. A task force was set up to study the medical issue for next session.
Even with the governor and lawmakers amenable to the idea, legal medical marijuana isn’t a sure thing. Some members in the Senate are strongly opposed, and deliberation over the measure could be drawn out.
Sixteen states and the District of Columbia have medical marijuana programs. Around a dozen states have decriminalized marijuana, and of those, about half went on to implement medical marijuana laws.
Erik Williams, executive director of the Connecticut branch of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said decriminalization can prove looser marijuana regulations won’t harm the state.
“It takes a lot of the wind out of the sails of the fear mongers out there when they see things really haven’t changed,” he said.
Advocates say medical marijuana programs allow people in severe pain to obtain relief that is not possible through medications currently available. Supporters would give patients access to the drug through some of type of pot shop and allow them to grow cannabis from home.
Opponents, however, say starting a marijuana program will lead to increased crime and drug use.
Michael Rinaldi, president of the Narcotic Enforcement Officers Association of Connecticut, said a medical program would be abused by people not in serious pain, lead to other drug use and put the state in conflict with the federal government.
“I have yet to see a positive side to any of this,” Rinaldi said.
The state has flirted with medical marijuana laws before. In 2007 the legislature passed a measure to allow the drug, but it was vetoed by then Gov. M. Jodi Rell, a Republican.
Malloy proposed a medical marijuana bill much like the one Rell vetoed in 2007. He encouraged the decriminalization effort as a cost-saving reform.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)