Police Prepare For Marijuana Decriminalization in Connecticut

As of today, getting caught with less than half an ounce of marijuana no longer gets you a ride in the back seat of a police car.

Instead, people older than 21 caught with up to the equivalent of about 30 joints will be issued the equivalent of a traffic ticket that carries a $150 fine. People 21 and younger will get the same ticket, but also face a 60-day driver’s license suspension.

Fines for subsequent offenses range from $200 to $500. People with three or more offenses are required to obtain drug counseling at their own expense.

Some things won’t change, though. Police will still conduct field tests to determine whether that “green leafy” material they’ve found is marijuana. If it is, they’ll seize it and hold onto it as evidence until the case is resolved, then destroy it.

Some departments have bought portable scales to help officers determine whether they’re dealing with a crime or an infraction when they find marijuana. But in most cases, police will simply apply their experience.

“You can pretty much eyeball it,” said Vernon police Capt. Stephen Clark. “Most experienced officers can tell what’s under half an ounce.”

“It’s simply procedural,” said Farmington police Lt. William Tyler. “If they have good identification at the scene, they’ll be written a ticket at the scene.”

But with anything new, there is uncertainty. Finding marijuana is often a first step in an investigation and allows police to search a car or a person for evidence of other crimes.

For now, that will likely continue in Connecticut. After marijuana was decriminalized in Massachusetts, the commonwealth’s Supreme Court ruled that the smell of marijuana was no longer enough to give officers probable cause to search a suspect or their car.

“In many, many cases, it’s your foot in the door,” West Hartford police Chief James Strillacci said. “You stop somebody, you roll down the window, you smell the marijuana. One thing leads to another and before you know it you find you’ve got stolen goods in the car [or]evidence of another crime.”

“It’s going to make for some interesting case law,” Strillacci said.

Clark said the law’s true impact will evolve as cases wind their way through the courts.

Tyler said he doesn’t anticipate a problem.

“A car search is based on odor,” he said. “A car will still be searched because an odor doesn’t indicate if it’s less than half an ounce.”

Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane said he expects a smooth transition to the new law. And prosecutors will be available to guide police as issues arise.

“I think it will shake out,” he said.

The new law has little impact for people 18 and younger. They’ll be referred to juvenile authorities if caught with marijuana.

– Article originally from The Hartford Courant.