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Norwalk Teens Criticize Reduced Pot Penalties

The “very sad day” that Norwalk Police Chief Harry Rilling fought to avoid is soon to be at hand: The Connecticut legislature has passed a bill modifying the penalties for the possession of small amounts of marijuana.

Two 16-year-olds at Calf Pasture Beach on Thursday were not swayed. Jonathan Torres and Joey Linton said they won’t smoke marijuana, no matter what. “A couple of friends of mine who do it, and it just changes them. They don’t want to be active, they don’t want sports or nothing,” Jonathan said. “All they want to do is go on video games.”

“That’s why we’re worrying about sports right now,” Joey said. Both are on the Norwalk High School basketball and football teams, and Jonathan also plays lacrosse.

The penalty for possessing less than a half-ounce of marijuana would be reduced from a crime that carries a possible prison term to a penalty of a $150 fine for a first offense and a $200 to $500 fine for a subsequent offense. An offender would be able to mail in the payment, as if it were a traffic ticket. Third time offenders would be referred to a drug treatment program, and anyone under age 21 would have their driver’s license suspended for 60 days.

The bill passed the Senate on Saturday and the House on Tuesday. Local legislators voted along party lines: Republicans against the bill, Democrats in favor.

“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,” Gov. Dannel Malloy said in a statement. “Let me make it clear — we are not legalizing the use of marijuana. In modifying this law, we are recognizing that the punishment should fit the crime, and acknowledging the effects of its application. There is no question that the state’s criminal justice resources could be more effectively utilized for convicting, incarcerating and supervising violent and more serious offenders.”

Rilling disagreed. “I think it’s sending a tremendous mixed message,” he said. “The argument about reducing the amount of people in jail doesn’t hold water. Very few people if any go to jail for less than 4 ounces of marijuana. All of them have another crime to go with it.”

He said it sends the wrong message to young people, that being caught with a small amount of marijuana is “less serious than going through a red light.” Rilling also cautioned that less than a half-ounce of marijuana might not sound like much, but marijuana is much more potent than it used to be. “The job is going to be made much more difficult for parents to convince their children that they shouldn't be doing these things," he said.

A 13-year-old girl at Calf Pasture Beach also was aghast that the fine for possession of marijuana would be dropped to $150 for first offenders. “It should be at least $1,000,” she said, the current amount of the fine.

Malloy disagreed. “Modification of this law will now put Connecticut in line with the laws of two of our neighboring states, New York and Massachusetts, and a total of 13 states across the country with similar statutes,” he said. "I applaud the General Assembly in their passage of this legislation and will sign it into law.”

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