HARTFORD — An early afternoon committee deadline Tuesday killed a bill that would have decriminalized penalties for possession of up to half an ounce of marijuana.
The bill, along with legislation that would have prohibited smoking in the state’s casinos, died as the Legislature’s chief opponent to the pot legislation, Sen. Antonietta Boucher, R-Wilton, talked at length on the marijuana bill through the early afternoon deadline.
The legislative inaction came as a defeat for Senate Majority Leader Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven.
Looney wanted to model Connecticut law on a popular Massachusetts referendum last fall that made possession of small amounts of pot punishable by infraction penalties similar to vehicular violations, without criminal consequences. He did not return calls for comment Tuesday.
There’s a chance the bill could be revived as an amendment prior to the legislative adjournment on June 3, but it’s unlikely after last week’s incident in which a pro-pot activist from Somers was arrested by Capitol police on a misdemeanor disorderly conduct charge in connection with an e-mail he sent implying violence against Boucher.
Because of the e-mail, plain-clothes police joined a uniform police officer Tuesday in the Legislative Office meeting room where the Finance Committee met to discuss bills referred from the House and Senate.
After the meeting, the committee leaders said they had agreed to let the bill die because of the e-mail threat, the subsequent arrest and the effect the incident had on Boucher, who was elected to the Senate last fall after six terms in the House.
Rep. Cameron C. Staples, D-New Haven, co-chairman of the Finance, Revenue & Bonding Committee, abruptly adjourned the meeting at 1:30. The committee had to act on both the marijuana bill and the casino-smoking prohibition Tuesday to keep them alive in the legislative process.
Staples and Sen. Eileen M. Daily, D-Westbook, the co-chairwoman, said that another bill on the committee agenda, which would prohibit open containers of alcohol in motor vehicles, was not dead, but would be voted on by the committee later in the week.
Daily told reporters after the committee meeting that when Dominic Vita, 28, of Somers, vice chairman of the state chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, sent an e-mail last week threatening to “go postal” on Boucher, it effectively killed the legislation for the year.
“I think the threat to Sen. Boucher and the committee overrode any other concern,” Daily said. “And out of respect to Sen. Boucher and the committee, we welcomed the debate on the bill as well as the filibustering all day.”
Vita faced a Class C misdemeanor charge of disorderly conduct in connection with the incident and after accepting a community-service sentence Tuesday, he agreed to stay away from the Capitol for a few weeks and return to court in July.
“Sen. Boucher was very shaken by that threat and very concerned and she has been very outspoken on her opposition to marijuana and she took the threat very seriously and wanted time to explain her position,” Daily said.
She said she expected the bill to come up again as an amendment during the session and would have voted for it. The committee got the bill from the Senate because of the fiscal implications, including legislative research indicating that it could save millions of dollars in judicial costs, as well as $325,000 a year from fines.
Looney, who did not return requests for comment, said the bill was a way to offer low-level marijuana users a chance to avoid a criminal record. Currently, possession of less than four ounces of marijuana is a misdemeanor. Researchers said that about 17 people are in state prisons under the current law, a minuscule number in a system with 19,000 inmates.
The meeting was adjourned at 1:30 for an hour-long informational hearing on the Metro-North commuter railroad that was held prior to the House session.
Committee meetings are not allowed to proceed during sessions of the House and Senate. Today was the deadline to act on the bill that would have make possession of an ounce of marijuana punishable by a $250 fine.
“This is just a minor stop in a long progression,” Boucher said, claiming that marijuana is a gateway to more-serious drugs, while decriminalizing it would cause higher costs for local police throughout the state.
Sen. Andrew J. McDonald, D-Stamford, co-chairman of the Judiciary Committee, which approved the pot bill last month, said the arrest of Vita seemed to sink any chance for bipartisan support.
“There are a number of Republican legislators who appear to have reconsidered their position on the bill as the result of the abusive e-mail received by Sen. Boucher,” McDonald said in an interview Tuesday. “It’s never appropriate to threaten a legislator as was done in the e-mail sent to Sen. Boucher. There’s no doubt that the e-mail clouded the merits of the issue and mortally wounded its chances.”
He said there’s a chance the bill could reappear as an amendment, but it would be difficult.
Proponents of the bill have said that alcohol is a stronger link to future drug abuse, but Boucher seemed to gain momentum last week when Capitol police arrested a state officer in a national marijuana-reform organization on a disorderly conduct charge after state officials intercepted a threatening e-mail he directed toward Boucher.
Attorney General Richard Blumnehtal said he was disappointed by the defeat of the casino smoking-ban bill.
“Far from abandoning this fight, I will seek support for other means to achieve legislative approval for the ban,” he said in a statement. “I will continue battling to ban smoking at the casinos, protecting workers and customers from the deadly effects of secondhand smoke.”
The Mashantucket Pequots and the Mohegans both threatened to withhold the state’s share of slot machine revenue — about $370 million this year — if the state tried to meddle with its smoking policy.
By Ken Dixon