Connecticut’s chief prosecutor announced last week that state’s attorneys have dismissed more than 1,500 pending cannabis-related criminal cases involving offenses that are no longer against the law. In a letter sent to a Connecticut legislative committee on March 31, Chief State’s Attorney Patrick J. Griffin reported that prosecutors had reviewed more than 4,000 pending drug possession cases and dropped the charges for 1,562 of them.
In June 2021, Connecticut lawmakers passed legislation to legalize personal quantities of marijuana and to regulate commercial cannabis production and sales. The possession provisions went into effect one month later, and dispensaries began regulated sales of recreational marijuana in December 2022.
The legalization statute also included provisions for the expungement of past cannabis-related convictions in cases involving up to four ounces of cannabis. In January, Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont announced he had “erased 42,964 cannabis convictions” as a result of the legislation. But the expungement provisions did not explicitly clear charges for pending marijuana possession cases, a point that was later clarified by lawmakers.
“The legislature made clear to the Division of Criminal Justice that it intended for the new cannabis laws to apply to people who had charges pending on the date the law went into effect,” Griffin said in a statement cited by CTInsider. “Understanding the intent of the legislature, the division undertook an expedited review of its files to respect the legislature’s wishes. The state’s attorneys and their offices should be commended for their efforts and their commitment to addressing these cases in such a timely manner.”
More Than 4,000 Pending Drug Possession Cases Reviewed
The charges dropped by prosecutors represent cases that were pending when the legalization bill went into effect. In addition to the 1,562 dropped charges, about 600 more that involved multiple charges were modified to remove cannabis charges from the case. Griffin reported to lawmakers that his office had to review each of more than 4,000 pending cases individually, citing state law that combines cannabis with other controlled substances such as heroin and cocaine.
“It has been the shared position of this committee and the division that persons charged with a possession of a cannabis-type substance offense that has subsequently been decriminalized should not be prosecuted for that offense,” Griffin wrote in his letter to lawmakers last week. “Thus, identifying these cannabis cases could not be accomplished merely by conducting a computerized review of pending cases.”
“This was no small task and quite labor intensive,” he added.
Griffin sent his letter to the General Assembly’s Judiciary Committee, which was last week considering a new bill directing state’s attorneys to end prosecutions for cannabis possession cases. The bill, HB-6787, also creates a process for automatic sentence modification of all eligible marijuana convictions identified by prosecutorial officials and instructs courts to determine if release or sentence modification is warranted. The measure was approved by the panel by a vote of 27-10, although Representative Steve Stafstrom, the co-chair of the committee, said that the bill is likely to be amended as it continues through the legislative process.
“This clears up confusion that may have been created under the legalization-of-cannabis process, whereby certain offenses that were pending before cannabis legalization remained pending even after that legislation was adopted,” Stafstrom said on March 31. “I want to specifically thank the office of the Chief State’s Attorney, who I know heard the concerns, the bipartisan concerns of this committee at the public hearing in terms of getting those cases dismissed.”
Connecticut Activists Applaud Dropped Charges
Griffin’s move to drop the pending marijuana cases was warmly received by cannabis policy reform advocates including Paul Armentano, the deputy director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.
“Hundreds of thousands of Americans unduly carry the burden and stigma of a past conviction for behavior that most Americans, and a growing number of states, no longer consider to be a crime,” Armentano said in a statement from the cannabis policy reform group. “Our sense of justice and our principles of fairness demand that public officials and the courts move swiftly to right the past wrongs of cannabis prohibition and criminalization.”
Sarah Gersten, executive director and general counsel of the Last Prisoner Project, a nonprofit group dedicated to securing the release of all cannabis prisoners, praised Griffin’s move and urged lawmakers to approve HB-6787.
“We applaud Chief State’s Attorney Patrick Griffin for dismissing more than 1,500 pending cannabis cases and modifying approximately 600 others. This announcement marks a tremendous step towards achieving justice in Connecticut,” Gersten wrote in an email to High Times. “However, HB-6787’s passage is still crucial to ensure those currently incarcerated have the same opportunity to have their sentences reviewed and potentially terminated. It is unconscionable that some in Connecticut remain incarcerated for cannabis while others are profiting from the exact same activity.”