HARTFORD - State lawmakers are, once again, talking about marijuana.
Two years ago, a bill that would have allowed for the medical use of marijuana was passed by the General Assembly, but vetoed by Gov. M. Jodi Rell. The topic has resurfaced this year.
Rep. Mary M. Mushinsky, D-Wallingford, submitted a bill that would legalize medical use of marijuana. Rep. Penny Bacchiochi, R-Somers, did the same.
Mushinsky's bill was drafted because of a constituent request.
"That's what happens when you go door-knocking," she said, adding that she supports medical marijuana use if it is regulated.
Bacchiochi, however, has been passionate about the need for medical marijuana since she first became a state representative in 2003. Her husband died of cancer, and Bacchiochi said at one point she bought her husband marijuana to ease his suffering.
Bacchiochi has shared her story on the House of Representatives' floor, and it was her personal tale that prompted some lawmakers, like Rep. Bruce Zalaski, D-Southington, to vote for the medical marijuana bill in 2007.
Before Bacchiochi, former state Rep. James W. Abrams, a Democrat from Meriden who is now a Superior Court judge, fought for the passage of a medical marijuana bill.
This year's two medical marijuana bills have been referred to the General Assembly's Judiciary Committee, and Mushinsky said she is hoping to find wording that Rell would support.
Rell declined to comment on the proposed legislation this week. Her spokesman said if the proposals reach her desk then the governor will give them a thorough review.
In 2007, Rell vetoed a medical marijuana bill, saying the law would require patients or primary caregivers to engage in illegal activity. Legal alternatives are available, she said.
Allowing for the medical use of marijuana could be debated and passed by the legislature, but House Speaker Christopher G. Donovan, D-Meriden, said he does not know if there is enough support for the controversial legislation to overturn a governor's veto.
Democrats in both the House and the Senate hold enough seats to overturn Rell's vetoes, but to do so, they must all agree.
Rep. Mary G. Fritz, D-Wallingford, is one Democrat who has consistently voted against medical marijuana bills, and she still has reservations. She said it is hard to regulate, and it is a risk for patients, caregivers and doctors that could result in trouble with the law.
East Hampton Police Chief Matthew A. Reimondo, president of the Connecticut Police Chiefs Association, could not be reached for comment this week.
A medical marijuana measure is a bill Rep. Vincent Candelora, R-North Branford, will not support.
Candelora says allowing the medical use of marijuana in Connecticut would do a disservice to chronic pain suffers because federal law still prohibits possession of marijuana. If the legislation were to pass, state law would contradict federal law, he said, noting that proponents of medical marijuana should take their fight to the national level.
Candelora also echoed the thoughts Rell voiced in 2007. There are other viable alternatives for those who need to alleviate pain, he said.
In addition to the medical marijuana bills, lawmakers are also talking about decriminalizing possession of 1 ounce or less. Instead of a criminal charge, those who are caught using small amounts of marijuana would be fined. Massachusetts passed similar legislation last fall.
Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney and Sen. Toni Harp, both Democrats from New Haven, are pushing for the change, saying that it would save the state money by not having to put those people through the legal system.
Someone caught with less than 4 ounces of marijuana could be sentenced up to one year in prison and could also be fined up to a $1,000 fine if it is their first offense, states a 2008 Office of Legislative Research report. The average daily cost of incarcerating criminal offenders, including marijuana offenders, is about $86 per inmate.
While several local lawmakers say they have not determined their stance on the matter, Fritz is a co-sponsor of the bill that would decriminalize small amounts of marijuana. Like the medical marijuana bills, this bill was also sent to the Judiciary Committee.
Fritz said she supports the bill because imprisoning those who use small amounts of marijuana is too costly. Fritz would rather see the state pay for a program designed to help drug users, she said.
"I think it's time for us to change," Fritz said.
Zalaski is one of the undecided lawmakers when it comes to the bill.
"It does come back to money at times," Zalaski said, adding that he is not sure Connecticut is ready to lessen the punishment for marijuana smokers.
The issue will be controversial, but Donovan is not sure lawmakers will be voting on the issue this year.
"I'm sure it'll be debated, but I don't anticipate any action," he said.
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Mushinsky pushes for medical marijuana bill in Connecticut