Connecticut Democratic legislative leaders say they remain confident that a marijuana legalization bill that cleared the Senate early Tuesday morning will advance through the House and get to the governor before the end-of-session deadline on Wednesday—but Republicans are calling for the legislation to be slowed down and taken back up in a special session.
Gov. Ned Lamont (D), for his part, said after the Senate vote that he’s looking forward to signing the measure should it arrive on his desk, applauding the chamber for passing it with some level of bipartisanship.
Last night, a bipartisan group of state Senators passed legislation legalizing the adult-use and possession of cannabis. I applaud their actions👏.
Read my full statement on the Senate’s passage of the measure and its next steps. pic.twitter.com/G6mjdFTjOc
— Governor Ned Lamont (@GovNedLamont) June 8, 2021
“The war on cannabis, which was at its core a war on people in Black and Brown communities, not only caused injustices and increased disparities in our state, it did little to protect public health and safety,” he said. “This measure is comprehensive, protects our children and the most vulnerable in our communities, and will be viewed as a national model for regulating the adult-use cannabis marketplace.”
There are only two days left to move the bill through the House if lawmakers want to avoid a special session, however. And while both the governor and leadership has indicated that they’d prefer to avoid taking that route, House Speaker Matt Ritter (D) said on Tuesday that it’s one piece of “leverage” Democrats have if legalization opponents attempt to kill the reform proposal by running out the clock.
“I always think the best thing we can do is try to get all of our business done by midnight,” he said at a briefing.
“The governor is committed to the cannabis bill which means he may call us into a special session, which means we can’t do our scheduling the way we want to do it—it just gets complicated,” he said. “My hope is we can have a lengthy debate—no one’s saying it would be five minutes—and have a vote and let it be over with, as opposed to come back.”
Later in the day, Ritter made clear that he’s prepared to go right into special session if midnight on Wednesday comes without a vote on legalization.
“Hopefully the the House will vote on the cannabis bill Wednesday, as well as other bills important to members on both sides of the aisle,” he said in a statement to reporters. “If we can’t agree to vote this important legislation up or down, we will immediately call ourselves into special session. Whether we vote at 9 p.m. on Wednesday or 9 a.m. on Thursday depends on wether all sides are willing to set aside their differences and vote.”
UPDATE: House Speaker Matt Ritter re-iterates there WILL be a vote on marijuana — either tomorrow or in an immediate special session
— John Craven (@johncraven1) June 8, 2021
Asked about whether the votes are there to pass this in the House, House Majority Leader Jason Rojas (D) said at the morning briefing that they have enough “solid, solid yeses,” though he acknowledged that it will likely still be close, with some Democratic members who will oppose it.
“Now there is a comprehensive bill before them that addresses all sorts of issues that I don’t think anybody contemplated even a month or two ago, right?” he said.
“When we put in caps on THC levels, when something came up in caucus about ensuring that edibles are individually wrapped up, that’s now in the bill,” he continued. “The equity question was looming out there for months. I think we’ve addressed it to the satisfaction of the advocates outside the building and certainly with our members inside the building. It’s a really, really solid count.”
The cannabis bill is the product of weeks of negotiations between leaders and Lamont’s office. Finalized language was introduced only on Saturday, giving lawmakers little time to review the roughly 300-page proposal.
On Tuesday, House Minority Leader Vincent Candelora (R) called on Democrats to bump the cannabis bill to a special session, criticizing a provision he claimed was aimed at giving a single cannabis investor in the state a head start on getting a license by skipping the lottery awarding process. That language was removed from the bill in a Senate floor amendment.
“We need to reset the clock on this piece of legislation, and look at why a provision was put in to allow for an individual to circumvent the process,” he said, adding that he thought the bill would require a “minimum” of twelve house of floor debate.
Equity advocates, for their part, appear to be mostly satisfied with the latest form of the legislation.
Prior to negotiations, the governor backed a separate legalization measure that received significant criticism from acitvists for a lack of social equity components aimed at correcting the wrongs of the drug war. That legislation moved through two committees, but it is not being used as the vehicle for the reform despite speculation that it could have been.
Here are some key details about the new, Senate-approved legislation:
- It would allow adults 21 and older to possess up to 1.5 ounces of cannabis starting on July 1, and it would establish a retail market, with Rojas anticipating sales to launch in May 2022.
- Regulators with the Department of Consumer Protection (DCP) would be responsible for issuing licenses for growers, retailers, manufacturers and delivery services.
- Social equity applicants—defined as people who have lived in geographic areas disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs and who make no more than three times the state’s median income—would be entitled to half of those licenses.
- A significant amount of tax revenue from cannabis sales would go toward community reinvestment.
- Home cultivation would be permitted—first to medical marijuana patients and then later to adult-use consumers.
- Criminal convictions for possession of less than four ounces of cannabis would be automatically expunged beginning in 2023. Expungement would apply to possession convictions from January 1, 2000 through September 15, 2015.
- Beginning July 1, 2022, individuals could petition to have other cannabis convictions erased, such as for possession of marijuana paraphernalia or the sale of small amounts of cannabis.
- The smell of cannabis alone would no longer be a legal basis for law enforcement to stop and search individuals, nor would suspected possession of up to five ounces of marijuana.
- Absent federal restrictions, employers would not be able to take adverse actions against workers merely for testing positive for cannabis metabolites.
- Rental tenants, students at institutions of higher learning, and professionals in licensed occupations would be protected from certain types of discrimination around legal cannabis use. People who test positive for cannabis metabolites, which suggest past use, could not be denied organ transplants or other medical care, educational opportunities or have action taken against them by the Department of Children and Families without another evidence-based reason for the action.
- Cannabis-related advertising could not target people under 21, and businesses that allow minors on their premises would be penalized. Licensees who sell to minors would be guilty of a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in prison and a $2,000 fine. People in charge of households or private properties who allow minors to possess cannabis there would also face a Class A misdemeanor.
- Adults 18 to 20 years old who are caught with small amounts cannabis would be subject to a $50 civil fine, although subsequent violations could carry a $150 fine and mandatory community service. All possession offenses would require individuals to sign a statement acknowledging the health risks of cannabis to young people.
- Minors under 18 could not be arrested for cannabis possession. A first offense would carry a written warning and possible referral to youth services, while a third or subsequent offense, or possession of more than five ounces of marijuana, would send the individual to juvenile court.
Local governments could prohibit cannabis businesses or ban cannabis delivery within their jurisdictions. Municipalities could also set reasonable limits on the number of licensed businesses, their locations, operating hours and signage.
- Until June 30, 2024, the number of licensed cannabis retailers could not exceed one per 25,000 residents. After that, state regulators will set a new maximum.
- Cannabis products would be capped at 30 percent THC by weight for cannabis flower and all other products except pre-filled vape cartridges at 60 percent THC, though those limits could be further adjusted by regulators. Retailers would also need to provide access to low-THC and high-CBD products. Products designed to appeal to children would be forbidden.
- The state’s general sales tax of 6.35 percent would apply to cannabis, and an additional excise tax based on THC content would be imposed. The bill also authorizes a 3 percent municipal tax, which must be used for community reinvestment.
- Until June 30, 2023, all excise tax would flow to the state’s general fund. For three years after that, 60 percent of the tax revenue will go to a new Social Equity and Innovation Fund. That amount would increase to 65 percent in 2026 and 75 percent in 2028. Other revenue would go to the state’s general fund as well as prevention and recovery services around drug use disorders.
- Existing medical marijuana dispensaries could become “hybrid retailers” to also serve adult-use consumers. Regulators would begin accepting applications for hybrid permits in September 2021, and applicants would need to submit a conversion plan and pay a $1 million fee. That fee could be cut in half if they create a so-called equity joint venture, which would need to be majority owned by a social equity applicant. Medical marijuana growers could also begin cultivating adult-use cannabis in the second half this year, though they would need to pay a fee of up to $3 million.
- Licensing fees for social equity applicants would be 50 percent of open licensing fees. Applicants would need to pay a small fee to enter a lottery, then a larger fee if they’re granted a license. Social equity licensees would also receive a 50 percent discount on license fees for the first three years of renewals.
- The state would be allowed to enter into cannabis-related agreements with tribal governments, such as the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe and the Mohegan Tribe of Indians.
The Senate adopted one amendment to the bill before passing it on Tuesday that makes a number of substantial and technical changes. Among other revisions, it deletes a section that would have allowed backers of marijuana producers to obtain cultivation licenses without being subject to a lottery and clarifies that a higher percentage of equity joint-venture owners be from disproportionately impacted areas. It also expands equity provisions of the bill so that 100 percent of profits with joint ventures with existing businesses go to equity partners, rather than the 5 percent in the original bill, and exempts medical marijuana from potency limits that apply to adult-use products.
A fiscal note of the unamended bill projects that taxes and fees for marijuana would bring in an estimated $4.1 million in additional revenue for the state and municipalities in fiscal year 2022, which would grow over time to a projected annual haul of $73.4 million by fiscal year 2026.
Prior to the compromise bill, progressive Democrats had signaled that they feel legislative leaders and the governor were moving too quickly and sidestepping important social equity considerations. Rep. Anne Hughes (D), cochair of the Progressive Caucus, told Marijuana Moment last week that “we want to do it right”—and that may mean tackling the reform in a special session.
Meanwhile, the governor said recently that he and legislative leaders are having “good, strong negotiations,” and there’s “broad agreement” on policies concerning public health and safety. There’s “growing agreement” with respect to using marijuana tax revenue to reinvest in communities disproportionately harmed by prohibition.
If a legalization measure isn’t enacted this year, Lamont said last month that the issue could ultimately go before voters.
“Marijuana is sort of interesting to me. When it goes to a vote of the people through some sort of a referendum, it passes overwhelmingly. When it goes through a legislature and a lot of telephone calls are made, it’s slim or doesn’t pass,” the governor said. “We’re trying to do it through the legislature. Folks are elected to make a decision, and we’ll see where it goes. If it doesn’t, we’ll probably end up in a referendum.”
He said last year that if the legislature isn’t able to pass a legalization bill, he will move to put a question on the state’s 2022 ballot that would leave the matter to voters.
According to recent polling, if legalization did go before voters, it would pass.
Sixty-four percent of residents in the state favor legalizing cannabis for adult use, according to a survey from Sacred Heart University that was recently released.
The competing legalization measure from Rep. Robyn Porter (D), which was favored by many legalization advocates over the governor’s bill because of its focus on social equity, was approved in the Labor and Public Employees Committee in March.
Lamont, who convened an informal work group in recent months to make recommendations on the policy change, initially described his legalization plan as a “comprehensive framework for the cultivation, manufacture, sale, possession, use, and taxation of cannabis that prioritizes public health, public safety, and social justice.”
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. Those bills stalled, however.
Lamont reiterated his support for legalizing marijuana during his annual State of the State address in January, stating that he would be working with the legislature to advance the reform this session.
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.