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Lawmakers disagree on marijuana’s role in traffic deaths and how to control it

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Lawmakers disagree on marijuana’s role in traffic deaths and how to control it


While state legislators are trying to reduce fatalities on Connecticut highways, they haven’t been able to agree on the next steps regarding drivers smoking pot or drinking alcohol.

Republicans said that marijuana is a major problem on the highways, but their amendment to make it easier for police officers to pull over pot-smoking drivers was defeated by the Democratic-controlled committee by 19-14.

The amendment was part of a broader bill to lower the threshold for arrest for drunken driving from a blood alcohol concentration of .08% to .05%. The only state that currently has the .05 level is Utah. But lawmakers also could not reach a broad consensus on alcohol as Democrats and Republicans split on the issue that passed narrowly.

Republicans said they do not believe it is a coincidence that fatalities have increased since the legislature approved the decriminalization of marijuana in June 2021. But lawmakers from both parties said they lack detailed information regarding the impact of marijuana on accidents. Retail sales of marijuana did not become legal in Connecticut until January 2023, and comprehensive statistics are not available in real-time.

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Democrats noted that the state now has 72 “drug recognition experts” who can check for impairment and will be better able to document marijuana use.

Lawmakers are examining a package of bills to improve road safety as the transportation committee faces a deadline Friday in a short legislative session that ends on May 8.

Rep. Thomas O’Dea, a New Canaan Republican, cited a provision that was passed as part of the marijuana law that says that “the odor of cannabis or burnt cannabis” cannot be used as the sole reason for probable cause for an officer to pull over a driver.

“That’s insanity. It defies logic,” O’Dea told committee members. “We argued this on the floor of the House. It makes no sense. If a police officer sees a person drinking a beer while driving, the police can use that as probable cause to pull that person over. If a police officer observes a person holding a bong in their hand, and the police officer sees that, can they pull the person over for holding a bong or a roach? My understanding is they can’t.”

Rep. Roland Lemar, a New Haven Democrat who co-chairs the committee, said the driver could be pulled over for reckless driving if that was the case.

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“The reason why I am so apoplectic about this is because of other issues,” O’Dea said. “We’re literally encouraging people — smoke marijuana and gummies. Just don’t drink. … And we wonder why there are more deaths on our highways?”

Mark Mirko / Hartford Courant

Connecticut State Representative Tom O’Dea says Connecticut should change the law on allowing police to pull over drivers who are smoking marijuana. Here, he reacts after his name was called in the past on opening day at the start of the legislative session.

In one of the contentious issues of the day, O’Dea offered an amendment to change the state law and allow police officers to stop drivers if they see the driver has been using marijuana.

“It allows a police officer, if they see someone smoking marijuana … you can pull them over,” O’Dea said. “If you see a driver smoking dope, you can pull him over. This, I guarantee you, will save lives. I know I’m a little passionate about this. If you really want to impact the safety of our roadways, this will do it.”

In Stamford, O’Dea said, “When I am walking to buy lunch, I smell marijuana coming out of vehicles.”

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But Lemar and other Democrats opposed the amendment, saying that the issue in traffic safety should be focused on alcohol. Democrats also said the amendment could jeopardize the underlying bill, and the issue would instead by addressed in a separate bill by the legislature’s judiciary committee on Wednesday.

“I don’t know, frankly, if this is the right way to address the issue,” Lemar said. “It is almost impossible to tell, from the side of the road, whether a person has been smoking marijuana or not. If you’re speeding or operating the car recklessly and the officer smells or sees marijuana, they can test for impairment.”

Rep. Devin Carney, a Republican, said that he recently pulled over at a rest area off Interstate 95 and personally saw a person in the driver’s seat of a car who was smoking a joint. Carney said he did not see the person drive away, but he noted the anecdote was illustrative.

“We are sending the wrong message when we say you can drive by a police officer, light up a joint, and there is nothing the police officer can do,” Carney told fellow committee members.

After losing the debate over marijuana, O’Dea and some other Republicans eventually voted against the bill regarding lowering the alcohol level to .05%.

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“I’m not sure this is going to save a life,” O’Dea said, adding that he was sure that his marijuana amendment would save lives.

But Sen. Tony Hwang, the committee’s ranking Senate Republican, voted in favor, saying he hopes to change the culture around drinking.

“The saddest part is it is a preventable tragedy,” Hwang said. “It should not be a coincidence … that the marijuana legalization, combined with alcohol, have contributed to these kind of road fatalities and road dangers. For us to pass a bill only looking at blood alcohol level and rejecting these amendments related to cannabis as it affects safety on our roads, I think, we, as a committee, are only doing part of our job. … We should have accepted those amendments, in addition to blood alcohol content. It weighs on me that we, as a committee, only went halfway on this.”

While noting that the legislature can pass many laws, Hwang said, “But you can’t teach common sense.”

He added, “If we don’t support law enforcement to enforce these laws, it’s going to be tragedy as usual. … If we’re handcuffing one hand behind their back and we’re not addressing the other issues of impairment, I really believe we are doing an incomplete job.”

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But Rep. Kate Farrar, a West Hartford Democrat, said legislators are making their best efforts to stop tragedies on the roads.

“Are we doing everything we can?” Farrar asked. “We know that lowering this blood alcohol level can save lives. … I do hope that all of our colleagues, again, take seriously that we really have taken this moment to do everything we can to protect the residents of our state.”

Utah

Utah became the first state to lower the blood alcohol level in 2018 and has seen a drop of 19.8% in fatal crashes.

Dropping the level, according to the National Transportation Safety Board, would lower the death rate in Connecticut by an estimated 11%. Like Connecticut, other states that are currently considering .05 are Hawaii, Washington, New York, North Carolina and others.

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Nationally, 13,384 people died in the United States in alcohol-related crashes in 2021, the most recent year where complete numbers are available. That includes 112 alcohol-related deaths in Connecticut.

The .05 measure is part of a broader plan to reduce a skyrocketing number of fatalities on Connecticut roads. Legislators were stunned at 366 deaths on the roads in 2022 — about one per day. The statistics show that 2022 was the worst year on Connecticut roads since 1989. While fatalities dipped to 323 last year, the accidents are continuing this year.

The national standard is .08% that states have enacted in order to avoid losing funding for federal highway construction. As a result, Connecticut is currently at the same level as nearby New York, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire and Rhode Island.

Lawmakers were already working on the problem of wrong-way crashes, but they vowed to redouble their efforts following the death last year of state Rep. Quentin “Q” Williams. The Middletown Democrat was killed in early January 2023 when his car was hit by a wrong-way driver shortly after Williams had left the governor’s inaugural ball in Hartford. Both drivers were legally drunk and both had marijuana in their system.

Rep. Aimee Berger-Girvalo, a Ridgefield Democrat, cited recent testimony by the National Transportation Safety Board that alcohol is a larger problem than marijuana. She also cited the death of Williams last year in a head-on collision.

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“This will reduce fatal crashes, and that is the point,” she said of the bill.

State Rep. Aimee Berger-Girvalo. a Ridgefield Democrat, supports lowering the blood alcohol level to .05% in order to reduce accidents and fatalities. She speaks here on the House floor in February. (Aaron Flaum/Hartford Courant)
State Rep. Aimee Berger-Girvalo. a Ridgefield Democrat, supports lowering the blood alcohol level to .05% in order to reduce accidents and fatalities. She speaks here on the House floor in February. (Aaron Flaum/Hartford Courant)

State Sen. Christine Cohen, the committee’s co-chairwoman, said that 2022 marked the highest deaths on Connecticut roadways in the past three decades, but the fatalities have continued this year at a steady pace.

“We know from the [transportation] commissioner that 2024 is on track to be even deadlier,” Cohen said. “I really do believe this is a multifaceted issue and deserves a multifaceted approach.”

Christopher Keating can be reached at ckeating@courant.com 



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UConn Renames Campus Building For Longtime Partner, Aerospace Giant

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UConn Renames Campus Building For Longtime Partner, Aerospace Giant


STORRS, CT — The University of Connecticut has named a campus building after Pratt & Whitney.

The dedication took place Friday with leaders from the UConn College of Engineering and Pratt & Whitney. It marked “a new milestone in innovation and collaboration,” officials said.

The renaming of the building, formerly known as the United Technologies Engineering Building, served as a “timely reminder of the interconnectedness of academia and industry,” officials said., while adding, “By bridging the gap between theory and practice, UConn and Pratt & Whitney are paving the way for transformative discoveries and advancements that will shape the future of engineering and beyond.”

UConn President Radenka Maric added, “The prevalence of the aerospace industry has been a constant in Connecticut. We come full circle today, recognizing Pratt & Whitney as one of the state’s longest established aerospace companies, and for its ties to UConn College of Engineering and the UConn mechanical engineering teams.

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More details are available on the UConn Today news website.

Part of Pratt & Whitney’s recent commitment to the UConn College of Engineering includes the Pratt & Whitney Scholars Program, a $1.25 million investment to serve underrepresented minorities. Those scholars were recognized in a Vergnano Institute for Inclusion showcase later Friday.

The partnership was also recently recognized by the Connecticut Office of Workforce Strategy. The Vergnano Institute and Pratt & Whitney earned an honorable mention for the inaugural Governor’s Workforce Partnership Awards and were recognized last week.



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Prominent Restaurant Closing, ‘Thank You’ Celebration Planned: CT News

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Prominent Restaurant Closing, ‘Thank You’ Celebration Planned: CT News


Patch AM CT brings you the breaking and trending news stories from all across Connecticut each weekday morning. At any point, you can find your local Patch and catch up on those stories here. Thank you for reading.

A restaurant, part of a prominent group with several locations in the state, will close later this month, the owners said, but a thank-you celebration is planned first.>>>Read More.


After being damaged by one fire, the same building was destroyed by a second inferno, and, now, police are investigating.>>>Read More.


More than 40 people were arrested early Monday morning as Yale and New Haven police cleared a student-led, pro-Palestinian tent encampment.>>>Read More.

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A woman is dead and three other people were injured in a crash, according to state police.>>>Read More.


Several area fire departments called to the scene of the fire.>>>Read More.


Authorities are still desperately searching for Mya’s four other babies.>>>Read More.


Other top stories:


The Patch community platform serves communities all across Connecticut in Fairfield, New Haven, Middlesex, New London, Hartford, Tolland, and Litchfield counties. Thank you for reading.

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Beavers making comeback in Connecticut. Here’s why that matters.

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Beavers making comeback in Connecticut. Here’s why that matters.


In this Sept. 12, 2014, photo, a tagged young beaver explores a water hole. (AP Photo/Manuel Valdes, File)

Engineers, commodity, lost keystone species, and pest — beavers have played many roles in Connecticut’s landscape.

Their survival is also an astounding conservation success story, according to a new book by local author Leila Philip who explores our relationship with beavers. Where they were once expatriated from the state by the fur trade and trapped to near extinction, in recent decades their numbers have rebounded.

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A 2001 state report estimated that there were around 8,000 individual beavers in Connecticut, but it’s unknown how many more there are now as they’re not actively tracked by the state. But a University of Connecticut project seeks to map where beavers are returning, to better understand their growth and recovery.

And then, how to coexist alongside them and their often beneficial water manipulating habitats.

Most people don’t spend much time thinking about beavers, and many people have never seen one. Philip said she was driven to understand beavers, and their significance after a chance encounter while walking her dog in her hometown forests of Woodstock.

“I heard that iconic beaver slap, but I didn’t know what it was,” she said. “I thought a gun had gone off, truly.”

But when she looked for the source of the sound, she didn’t find a hunter, nor did she find what was normally a muddy clearing in the trees. Instead she found a silvery pond glinting in the sun, the stillness cut by a little brown head swimming back and forth.

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“I was transfixed because of the tenacity of this animal,” said Philip. “I came out to watch the beaver every day and saw the transformation of this wet part of the woods into a beaver pond and it was one of the most incredible things I’d ever seen.”

Beavers are native to North America. The iconic rodents sport large paddle-shaped tails, webbed paws and teeth laced with iron. They build dams out of small trees, mud and sticks to serve as fortifications for their lodges, dens built out in the water that create dams.

There were millions of beavers on the continent when European settlers arrived. Philip said the scale of beavers on the landscape made the dense acres of trees a “waterworld of great spreading fans of waters throughout the forests.”

“That’s what we’ve lost,” Philip said. “We filled in 50 percent of our wetlands and that’s a problem for us now because those wetlands play such an important function in cleaning our water, slowing our water so it recharges the aquifers.”

The fur trade was critical for the formation of Connecticut as a colony, and eventually a state. Philip said beavers were essential for jump-starting transatlantic trade. She pointed to John Jacob Astor, the first known multi-millionaire U.S. businessman who had made his money on the back of a beaver fur monopoly.

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“By the 1900s the engines of capitalism are getting going in North America on the backs of the beaver,” said Philip. “They trapped, they trapped and they trapped them out. They almost exterminated them.”

By the mid-1800s, beavers were all but locally extinct as over-hunting moved them farther north. Early conservationists worked to bring them back. Some were reintroduced to the Yale Forest in 1914. Other reintroductions saw them recolonize local river systems.

But it took until the 1960s for them to truly rebound. Philip said this was due to many river systems being gummed up with industrial uses and the reforestation of farmlands. The beavers finally had habitats that connected, and they thrived.

Geoffery Krukar, a wildlife biologist with the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection said the state didn’t have hard numbers on beaver populations here, but he thinks there are a lot of them out there. He said that last year, in 2023, he issued more permits outside the regular trapping season than ever before for incidents of “beaver nuisances” where beavers are removed for threatening property and safety.

“We think they are an important component of the habitat and landscape, but sometimes public safety has to come first,” said Krukar. “You can’t have roads being undermined or going underwater.”

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Krukar said that he has denied permit requests for beaver removal, if it lacked a valid reason.

“Like, they just aesthetically didn’t want to see trees getting cut down at the edge of a swamp,” Krukar said of some requests. “I’ll try to preach coexistence in those situations.”

But there are some locals that don’t want to see beavers removed from their community. About five years ago in South Windsor beaver problems made quite a splash when they created a dam in Nevers Park. DEEP had authorized the town to trap and kill the beavers who after taking up residence had felled 200 trees and caused flooding in the park with a dam. When they found out, outraged locals signed a petition demanding the town find a way to share the public land with the beaver population.

Krukar echoed Philip, saying that beavers were one of the few animals that can create needed habitat on the landscape. He said that beaver wetlands were magnets for biodiversity and supported many kinds of life.

Sarah Heminway, director of the northeast region of the Connecticut Audubon Society said her organization learned to co-exist with beavers. At the Trail Wood Sanctuary in Hampton, beavers had made an acres-wide pond that would breach every 10 years or so in heavy rains. But Heminway didn’t want to get rid of the beavers.

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“We had many people saying, oh just trap the beavers and take them somewhere else,” said Heminway. “But this is perfect beaver habitat, there’s no sense in taking them away because they’re going to come back.”

Heminway reached out to the Beaver Institute in Massachusetts and had them come assess the pond. They settled on installing pond levelers — massive 40-foot pipes that extend to the middle of the pond that work as drains and keep the water from growing beyond a certain depth. The levelers worked, and last year’s heavy rains didn’t burst the dams.

“We need to stop treating everything as if it is expendable,” said Heminway. “That’s been the attitude since the Europeans came over on the Mayflower.”

She pointed to the regrowth of New England’s forests, the return of coyotes, deer, bears, fisher cats and beavers. She said that these animals have a place here.

“We have to live in balance,” said Heminway.

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Philip cites the story at the Trail Wood Sanctuary in her book “Beaverland: How One Weird Rodent Made America,” as an example of fruitful coexistence, noting that in drought months, the beaver pond helped sustain well water in the area. She has data to back this up too, pointing to a 2020 study that estimated that beavers near Milwaukee could provide 1.7 billion gallons of stormwater storage to the tune of about $3.3 billion in ecological services.

“Underneath the beaver pond is an invisible sponge in the ground,” said Philip. “If you have a beaver pond that holds a million gallons of water, about three million gallons of water are being held in the soil underneath. That’s a huge sponge that’ll recharge a creek when a drought comes.”

Philip hopes her book, and talking to locals in Connecticut can help change our perception of beavers.

“There are many ways in which people realize how it is in their interest to have beavers,” said Philip. “They can reverse our cultural habit of thinking we need to kill beavers.”

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