Since Marijuana Was Decriminalized in Connecticut, Small Busts Have Dropped 43 Percent
By Gregory B. Hladky
October 25, 2011
Statistics from the first three months of Connecticut's new marijuana decriminalization law indicate that busts for small amounts of pot have plunged by 43 percent since the new law took effect July 1.
"This is fantastic to find fewer people are being arrested for marijuana," says Erik Williams, Connecticut director for the National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). "I didn't expect such a large drop."
State Senate Majority Leader Martin M. Looney, a New Haven Democrat who was a primary sponsor of the decrim law, warned that three months of statistics is too short a period to show a definite trend by law enforcement.
"I think it's a good sign," Looney adds. He says the goal of the decriminalization law was to "free up police time to deal with more serious crime" and to keep lots of young people from "being permanently branded" by convictions for minor amounts of pot.
The new law makes possession of less than half an ounce of marijuana an infraction (getting a ticket) rather than a criminal offense, punishable by a fine of $150 for a first offense. Under the old law, you could be charged with a misdemeanor crime for anything under 4 ounces of pot.
According to the state Judicial Department, there were 3,057 arrests for possession of less than 4 ounces of pot during July, August and September 2010.
The number of infractions for small amounts of pot under the new law totalled just 997 in July, August and September of this year. And there were 744 busts of people for having between half an ounce and 4 ounces of grass on them.
That adds up to just 1,741 arrests and infractions for small amounts of marijuana for that three-month period, a drop of 43 percent for the same period in 2010.
Williams is cautious about drawing too many conclusions from three months of experience under the new law. "But these results are certainly encouraging," he says.
There have been some reports of a few cops making "intent to sell" arrests because individuals had less than half an ounce of grass broken up into separate packages, according to Williams.
Williams has also gotten calls that at least one arrest was made at the University of Connecticut even though the amount of pot involved was under half an ounce because the officer included the weight of the packaging when determining if the decriminalization threshold had been broken.
Opponents of decriminalization claimed that changing the law would encourage pot use. "That hasn't been borne out here," Williams says of the Connecticut statistics.
One expert who isn't surprised by this drop in busts for small amounts of grass is Michael Lawlor, Gov. Dannel Malloy's top criminal justice adviser.
He believes the numbers from these first few months under the new law is a recognition by cops on the street that minor marijuana use "is the lowest priority of our criminal justice system."
"It's probably the case that police, in most cases, aren't even issuing a ticket or making an arrest for small amounts of marijuana," Lawlor says. And he believes that's the way it should be, because police are supposed to have their "focus on the most important stuff."
Lawlor also notes that the drop in marijuana arrests during those three months is part of "a very significant drop in overall arrests" for all types of crime in Connecticut and across the nation. The three-year average for Connecticut arrests for September has been about 10,700. The number of total arrests in this state last month was 9,100 — a 15 percent drop.
"It's a national trend," Lawlor says, adding that there are all kinds of theories circulating trying to account for the drop off. Those include improvements in identifying the most serious criminals and keeping them off the streets longer, improved prison rehabilitation programs, and technological advances like DNA analysis and the widespread use of surveillance cameras.
"It may just be that the criminal justice system is finally starting to work," says Lawlor.