The governor of Connecticut released a budget request on Wednesday that includes a plan to legalize marijuana. But while the proposal places an emphasis on social equity, advocates are expressing expressing concerns about the lack of specifics so far.
Gov. Ned Lamont (D), who convened an informal work group in recent months to make recommendations on the policy change, said his budget plan will involve establishing a “comprehensive framework for the cultivation, manufacture, sale, possession, use, and taxation of cannabis that prioritizes public health, public safety, and social justice.”
“The proposal builds on the significant work that the Legislature has done on adult-use cannabis in recent sessions and ensures alignment with the approaches pursued by regional states,” a summary of the plan states.
During his budget speech, the governor noted that “our neighboring states are offering recreational marijuana on a legal and regulated basis,” and Connecticut is losing out on tax revenue that could be generated by following suit.
Watch Lamont discuss his cannabis legalization proposal below:
“Rather than surrender this market to out-of-staters, or worse, to the unregulated underground market, our budget provides for the legalization of recreational marijuana,” he said. “These additional revenues will go to distressed communities, which have been hardest hit by the war on drugs.”
The Lamont administration, which has recently been circulating a draft legalization bill for feedback, said in the written summary of the legalization proposal that it hopes Connecticut will become “the first state to create a truly equitable cannabis industry.”
But the details of how communities most impacted by the war on drugs could gain from the legal industry would be mostly determined after officials receive a report from a new equity commission.
“The commission will be given the important charge to develop guidelines and proposals regarding how individuals and neighborhoods that have been most affected by the enforcement of cannabis prohibition can benefit from the creation of a legal market,” the summary says.
Jason Ortiz, the Connecticut-based president of the Minority Cannabis Business Association and a member of Lamont’s cannabis equity task force, told Marijuana Moment that the details of how the legal market is implemented will matter.
“The recommendations from the task force were clear and I’m hopeful the governor heard us, but saying you support equity is not the same as backing it up with systemic change and robust investment,” he said.
“I still think we have fundamental disagreements over what equity means but look forward to analyzing the details,” he said, adding that he plans to review “every line of this bill” and will work with lawmakers and stakeholders to make sure that “the final policy that passes in Connecticut puts equity first in language and in dollars.”
The Marijuana Policy Project’s DeVaughn Ward said the proposal “is a solid starting point to began negotiations with the legislature.”
“I’m encouraged to see the inclusion of an expungement provision, a micro-business and delivery license type, an equity applicant, and a sizable portion of the revenue directed towards equity and communities of color,” he told Marijuana Moment. “The governor’s proposal keeps me optimistic that consensus on this complex issue can be reached this year.”
In broad stokes, the summary of Lamont’s plan makes the case that the current approach to criminalizing marijuana has been a harmful failure.
“Cannabis prohibition has not worked,” the 10-page document says. “It has failed to protect public health and safety, and instead has caused significant injustices for many residents, especially people in black and brown communities because of enforcement laws.”
“With legal cannabis available, or soon to be in neighboring states, Governor Lamont has made the decision to introduce legislation that would create a legal market for cannabis in Connecticut that is well-regulated to protect consumers and the public at large, will reduce the size and influence of the black market, and prevent economic loss from residents crossing borders to neighboring states.”
-Adults 21 and older would be allowed to possess up to 1.5 ounces of marijuana. Homegrow would not be permitted, but penalties for personal cultivation would be reduced and the state Department of Consumer Protection would be charged with studying the policy. Possession of between 1.5 and 2.5 ounces would be an infraction, while possession above 2.5 ounces would be a class C misdemeanor. People under 21 who possess up to 2.5 ounces of cannabis would face infractions, not misdemeanors.
-Regulators would be responsible for approving licenses for “cultivators, retailers, hybrid medical/adult-use retailers, microcultivators, product manufacturers, food and beverage manufacturers, product packagers and delivery services.” In the initial stage, licenses will be approved via a lottery system. Existing medical cannabis businesses could convert to recreational “for a substantial fee.”
-Adult-use cannabis sales would launch in May 2022. A standard sales tax and an excise tax ($1.25 per gram of flower) would be imposed on marijuana sales. Local municipalities that allow cannabis businesses to operate in their areas would be able to impose an additional three percent tax.
-In fiscal year 2023, “an estimated $33.6 million in revenue will be generated from the cannabis market, growing to $97.0 million by FY 2026,” the summary says. Starting in fiscal year 2024, half of the excise tax revenue “will be intercepted for municipal aid and social equity.”
-Marijuana-related convictions from before October 2015 would be automatically expunged. “The legalization of cannabis possession and the erasure of prior convictions will help erase some of the disproportionate impact of the War on Drugs on our state’s Black and brown communities,” the plan states.
-Law enforcement would not be able to conduct searches, stops or seizures based on the odor of cannabis, except in the context of impaired driving.
-People could not be denied professional licenses from the state because of their work in the cannabis industry or use of marijuana.
-To ensure that the program meets public safety standards, the governor is proposing to add 64 jobs to the consumer protection department. One unique component would involve having “secret shoppers” inspect cannabis businesses to ensure compliance.
The legislature has considered legalization proposals on several occasions in recent years, including a bill that Democrats introduced last year on the governor’s behalf. But while those stalled, there’s increased optimism that 2021 is the year for reform.
Lamont reiterated his support for legalizing marijuana during his annual State of the State address last month, stating that he would be working with the legislature to advance the reform this session.
House Speaker Matt Ritter (D) said in November that legalization in the state is “inevitable.” He added later that month that “I think it’s got a 50–50 chance of passing [in 2021], and I think you should have a vote regardless.”
Should that effort fail, Ritter said he will move to put a constitutional question on the state’s 2022 ballot that would leave the matter to voters.
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A poll released last year found that nearly two-thirds of voters (63.4 percent) either “strongly” or “somewhat” supported recreational legalization.
Some lawmakers have already made clear that they will not support legalization unless is adequately supports social equity and reinvestments in communities most impacted by the war on drugs.
Sen. Douglas McCrory (D), cochair of the Education Committee, said in a recent interview that “Frosty the Snowman would have a better chance of passing summer school in hell than any piece of legislation in Connecticut if it doesn’t deal with equity, economics and the communities that have been targeted and devastated by this fake war on drugs.”
The governor has compared the need for regional coordination on marijuana policy to the coronavirus response, stating that officials have “got to think regionally when it comes to how we deal with the pandemic—and I think we have to think regionally when it comes to marijuana, as well.”
He also said that legalization in Connecticut could potentially reduce the spread of COVID-19 by limiting out-of-state trips to purchase legal cannabis in neighboring states such as Massachusetts and New Jersey.
Read the summary of Lamont’s marijuana legalization plan below:
Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.