Connecticut Hightest Court Now that marijuana is moving toward national legalization, a new set of questions are emerging and states are doing their best to deal with past mistakes properly. A newly decided landmark Marijuana court case in the state of Connecticut may quickly become the example all other states follow when wrestling with questions about the best way to handle existing marijuana convictions in jurisdictions where the laws have now changed so that the exact same activity would now no longer warrant any kind of criminal penalty. In other words, what happens to the millions of Americans who have past marijuana convictions once cannabis becomes legal in that same state?

The ruling was issued in favor of Mr. Nicholas Menditto, a 31-year-old who sued the state of Connecticut, arguing that two marijuana possession convictions on his record should now be erased since having less than half an ounce of the marijuana has been decriminalized by the state. Mr. Menditto had been arrested before the law changed, but with the exact same facts on the table, he would not be arrested today for doing the exact same thing under Connecticut law. The case was struck down by an appellate court, which had ruled that the new law pertained to “legalization” not “decriminalization”, but Mr. Menditto continued the battle and brought the case to Connecticut State Supreme Court, the highest authority in the state and they disagreed with the lower court ruling unanimously 7-0 in Mr. Menditto’s favor.

Now, because of the ruling, all charges related to the two prior marijuana convictions will be removed from Mr. Menditto’s record and it will appear as if he had never been charged or convicted of those obsolete infractions. The ruling is a seven page explanation written by Justice Carmen Espinosa, in which she carefully details the difference between the words “decriminalization” and “legalization” which makes it very likely that lawyers in other jurisdictions will attempt to cite the case as an example of the way the law should work in other states. While one state’s rulings are not binding on judges in other states, a supreme court ruling from Connecticut or any other state’s high court is often an important argument in other states where no rulings have been made on a particular topic. In effect, state judges do often look to other state rulings as advice when determining how to rule in a case where the existing laws of their own state remain unsettled. Citing definitions from Merriam Webster and the Oxford English Dictionary, Espinosa found that the state prosecutor’s attempts to engage in word play simple do not hold much value. Connecticut’s downgrade of the possession of small amounts of marijuana to a civil violation in 2011 does in fact qualify as “decriminalization” according to Justice Espinosa and the six other Justices who joined with her in the unanimous ruling.

Connecticut law, and many other states, already have a provision in their laws that expressly defends the right of any individual to file a petition for expunction of a crime (cleaning it off their record) if that crime later becomes decriminalized. After a lengthy legal battle up hill, Mr. Meditto cleaned up his own record, but may also have started the wheels of justice in motion to clean up the records of millions of other Americans who have had their rights eroded by prior convictions for activities now deemed legal and the American public appears ready to accept that outcome with open arms.

A recent study by Quinnipiac University last May states that of the 1,700 registered voters they surveyed, 90% said they agree with Connecticut’s recent approval of medical marijuana and 61% also believe marijuana is less dangerous than alcohol. A Pew study published in November also found that 69% of Americans believe alcohol is a bigger health concern than cannabis. A recent Gallup poll echoed these results, showing 51% of Americans favor legalizing the cannabis completely.

California, Maine, Massachusetts and New York are now among the list of 18 states that have passed laws decriminalizing marijuana, however until now those laws only protected citizens from future cannabis possession prosecutions, but with this ruling those laws may soon be used to also clean away convictions for previously committed convictions. The ACLU has stated that 8.2 million people in the United States were arrested for marijuana violations from 2001 and 2010 and in 2010 alone someone was arrested for marijuana related infractions nearly every 37 seconds. In the wake of Ferguson investigations, it is also worth noting that the ACLU found blacks have been 400% more likely to be arrested for possession of weed than whites.

An ACLU report titled The War on Marijuana in Black and White also explains the severity of the “dire consequences” a conviction can have for even possessing a tiny amount of weed. The Center for Cognitive Liberty & Ethics, Life Sentences: The Collateral Sanctions Associated with Marijuana Offenses report shows that in 38 states personal possession marijuana charges can cause a person to be barred from ever adopting a child—in, denied financial aid or removed from public housing forever, regardless of all other circumstances and logical understanding of the surrounding facts. The ACLU also estimates enforcing marijuana laws costs each state an average of $3.6 billion annually. A 2003 report pins that number nationwide In at $29 billion and regardless of which estimates you find most accurate, there is universal agreement we are spending billions as a nation to protect people from pot, rather than spending the zero dollars it should cost to protect people from completely unnecessary prosecution.

Even President Obama appears ready to see marijuana legalization moving forward. Telling Vice in a recent interview that “We may be able to make some progress on the decriminalization side. At a certain point, if enough states end up decriminalizing, then Congress may then reschedule marijuana.”

That state’s first mindset is what makes Mr. Menditto’s legal actions and the court’s ruling such an important part of the solution.

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