Decriminalizing pot may have made criminal-justice matters worse in cities like New Haven, so why not just legalize it?
That suggestion comes from a candidate for governor, Jonathan Pelto. He argued that Connecticut should follow Colorado and Washington and allow people to purchase and use marijuana.
Pelto made the argument the other day over a bottle of Pellegrino during an interview at Woodland Cafe in Sherman Alley, one in a series of discussions with candidates about urban issues in this campaign year.
Pot legalization turns out to be very much an urban issue, as cast by Pelto, who’s racing to collect enough petition signatures by Wednesday to earn an independent spot on the November ballot. (Click on the above video to watch him respond to the charge that he’s playing a Ralph Nader-like spoiler role that could cost Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy to lose the election to a Republican.) In cities, unlike in suburbs, what should be a mere $150 ticket for possessing a small amount of weed too often turns into an arrest on charges of “intent to sell,” Pelto argued.
“Decriminalization is a small step. It might actually be a step in the wrong direction,” Pelto said. “If we’re going to do it, then let’s do it the right way.”
In the interview, Pelto staked positions generally to the left of the ideological spectrum—and, with the exception of some development and possibly school-reform initiatives, generally in line with New Haven’s liberal political culture. For instance:
• He called for fully funding the Payments in Lieu Of Taxes (PILOT) program, which reimburses cities like New Haven for revenue lost on tax-exempt properties like hospitals and universities. He would phase in the 100 percent reimbursement over 10 years. Malloy and Republican gubernatorial candidate John McKinney said they’re open to discussing New Haven state Sen. Martin Looney’s bill to guarantee 50 percent reimbursement to cities like New Haven with the most tax-exempt property. Independent Joe Visconti called for abolishing PILOT. The PILOT law authorizes the legislature to send 77 percent of lost revenue back to cities and towns. In practice, it has been sending back only 33 percent of the money lost on hospitals and colleges, 22 percent lost on state-owned property. That’s one reason New Haven struggles each year to avoid tax increases without also slashing public services.
• Pelto called for raising income taxes on the wealthy—specifically hiking the rate from 6.7 percent to 8.7 percent on earnings over $1 million a year. He estimated that would raise an additional $800 million a year for state coffers; he also argued that had Malloy done that in 2011, instead of raising taxes on all earners except millionaires, none of the state’s current $1.4 billion deficit would have materialized. The other candidates do not support hiking taxes on the wealthy. Visconti called for raising corporate taxes on the largest companies as a last resort; McKinney released a plan last week to eliminate income taxes on households earning less than $75,000.
• In addition to supporting the vote this year to raise the hourly minimum wage to $10.10 by 2017, Pelto said he’d push for a further increase to between $14 and $16. McKinney and Visconti opposed the raise to $10.10, which Malloy championed.
On two New Haven development projects Malloy has embraced this election year, Pelto said he needed to learn more before taking a position. He wasn’t familiar with the plan to rebuild the Dixwell Commuity “Q” House, for which Malloy has ponied up $1 million in planning funds and is expected to deliver another $15 million before Election Day. He took a skeptical stance on the request to spend $20 million in state bucks, which Malloy is also expected to deliver by election day, on street improvements to enable a developer to turn the old New Haven Coliseum site into a $395 million busy new-urbanist mini-city of apartments, stores, offices, a hotel and a public plaza.
Pelto said he generally opposes Malloy’s “corporate welfare” measures. For instance, he said, he would not have approved the $51 million state aid package Malloy put together to enable Alexion Pharmaceuticals to move from Cheshire to a new 11-story building in New Haven as part of the governor’s “First Five” jobs program, which Malloy touts as a job-protector and creator. Pelto argued that the First Five program doesn’t create jobs, but rather shovels public money to companies that would stay here anyway. The Alexion deal merely “moved jobs from Cheshire to New Haven,” he said. He said the First Five program has had “no accountability,” no rigorous cost-benefit analysis.
“It’s not the job of taxpayers to pick winners and losers in the private sector,” Pelto argued. He pointed to state aid for Pfizer’s New London development, which the company abandoned after 10 years.
Unintentional Weed Consequences
On marijuana, Pelto emphasized what he called a racial disparity in enforcement of current law. The state decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana on July 1, 2011; rather than get arrested, people cited for possessing cannabis can be fined $150 for the first offense and between $200 and $500 for the second. Often cops just look the other way. In New Haven, decriminalization prompted a collective “What took so long?” shrug.
Since then, Pelto said, decriminalization has had a disproportionate “racial and economic impact.”
“Suburban kids are being treated very differently from urban kids,” he said. “... In suburban areas they’re just slapped on the wrist.”
By contrast, Pelto said, people stopped in cities for possessing small amounts of marijuana are more likely to end up arrested on charges of intent to sell, leaving them with criminal convictions that make it harder for them to get jobs.
“The solution is to go ahead and legalize small amounts of marijuana” and have the criminal-justice system “deal with the more important drugs” that people need help staying away from, Pelto argued. He didn’t take a stand on how specifically to roll out a system to regulate the sale of marijuana. “We’re learning from Colorado. Connecticut will have the benefit of seeing how it’s done,” he said.
Click here to watch McKinney address the marijuana issue ...
... and here to watch Visconti. Foley spokesman Chris Cooper said the candidate does not support legalization. A Malloy spokesman failed to respond to requests Sunday for comment.
New Haven state Rep. Roland Lemar said he, too, supports legalizing marijuana (“though I think it should be a regulated product similar to alcohol or tobacco”). He said he hasn’t heard complaints from constituents about the abuses Pelto cited. He disagreed that decriminalization has made life worse for blacks and Latinos.
“Do I believe it is possible that some cops and prosecutors might try to ramp up some charges against a few folks? Yes, I believe that is possible, (though no one has actually ever contacted me to say that has happened) and we should be vigilant in protecting against that type of law enforcement abuse,” Lemar stated in an email.
“But what was happening before was far worse—countless numbers of people (overwhelmingly African-American or Latino) were being arrested for truly trivial crimes that had no impact on anyone. Thousands of our residents had been arrested, sometimes prosecuted, for possession of literally one marijuana cigarette. Those arrests and prosecutions would be used against them in future judicial proceedings, employment screenings, and more. What a colossal waste of taxpayer resources while being a lifelong black mark on someone’s record for a crime with no societal cost.”
State ACLU Executive Director Andrew Schneider, whose group supports legalization, also said he hasn’t “seen evidence that decriminalization has caused police to pursue intent-to-sell charges more aggressively, but if that were happening it would almost certainly have a greater impact on minorities because drug laws have always been enforced more harshly in minority communities. If that’s happening, it’s a very unwelcome pattern and we’d be greatly concerned about it.”
Pelto (pictured), a former political insider, has made his name in this campaign as not just a potential anti-Malloy spoiler, but a Jeremiah prophesying agains the evils of charter-school oriented school reform. That has made him a critic of recent school developments in New Haven, and a skeptic of the city’s grand school-reform efforts in general.
Pelto, who’s 53, was first elected to the state House of Representatives in 1984. He rose to the position of deputy political director of the state party. He left office a decade later to become a political consultant. In the past couple of years he has carved out a career as a blistering anti-charter-school blogger and coach of other education bloggers. He has savaged Malloy’s school-reform efforts—like his attempt to end teacher tenure—as well as the governor’s continued embrace of charter schools and the Common Core curriculum.
A working ally of national charter critic Diane Ravitch, Pelto called the latter two examples of the “privatization” and “corporatization” of public schools to use high-stakes testing to funnel tax dollars to charters that cream students and leave more expensive special-ed and non-English-speaking students behind for traditional public schools. (The charters deny that charge.)
“You create a system in which there will be an unlimited number of ‘failing’ schools” with charters seen as the remedy, Pelto said.
His alternative includes investing more in dual-language and required unionization, certification of teachers, and acceptance of special-ed students in any nontraditional schools.
Most immediately for New Haven, Pelto said he would have turned down the application by a Dixwell church to open a charter school called Booker T. Washington Academy. The state granted the charter. Then the church’s partner, called FUSE, got caught up in a scandal and dropped out; the state Board of Education planned to meet Monday to consider a last-minute revised application to allow the school to open this month as planned with a new partner.
He called the last-minute effort to approve a new proposal an example of the lack of accountability in the charter process. “There was a process. They were chosen because FUSE was their partner,” he said. “These no-bid contracts and expedited review processes are a bad idea.”
More broadly, Pelto argued that New Haven’s charters have “contaminated” the city’s school-reform drive, which has been praised nationally (including by teachers union President Randi Weingarten) for avoiding the ideological pitfalls of more charter-centered and standardized-testing drives in other cities. New Haven has experimented with a wide range of models for failing schools, from a teacher-union-run school to a charter-managed school to “turnarounds” in which principals can choose their own teachers and change some rules such as the length of the school day.
“Because you had the charter schools playing such a dominant role, I’m not sure it is the testing ground it could have been if they had done it within the public-school system,” he said.
Pelto said he didn’t object to New Haven experimenting with having a charter company manage one school, Clemente Leadership Academy; the city did not renew the contract in that experiment. “It was worth trying. It didn’t work,” he said.
Instead, he called the relationship between the Board of Education and the charters too close—because New Haven’s mayor sits on both the Achievement First charter board as well as the traditional Board of Ed; and because a charter champion, Alex Johnston, sits on the Board of Ed. (He’s pictured with Mayor Toni Harp at a school board meeting.) The mayor started sitting on the Achievement First board, and Johnston ton the Board of Ed, under former Mayor John DeStefano as part of an agreement to have the city share ideas with the charters rather than continue fighting with them.
He also criticized a principal training program run for the city schools by Achievement First. He argued that one University of Connecticut or Southern Connecticut State University should have run the program.
Nor did Pelto applaud New Haven’s method of evaluating teachers, which the teachers union helped devise. Failing teachers are given extra support to try to improve; then, if they continue to rank low according to a panel of observers chosen by both administrators and the union, the system fires them. The teachers union has not yet challenged any of those firings. Pelto said rank-and-file teachers still oppose the process because it relies in part on standardized test scores and because administrators, who can play favorites, need more training in how to do evaluations.