The governor of Connecticut on Tuesday signed a bill to legalize marijuana—making it the 19th state to enact the reform.
Gov. Ned Lamont (D) has been broadly supportive of ending prohibition, but the path to get the legalization bill to his desk was rocky. Just as lawmakers were preparing to give the bill final passage, he threatened a veto over language on equity licensing that had been added, prompting legislators to revise it.
“For decades, the war on cannabis caused injustices and created disparities while doing little to protect public health and safety,” Lamont said in a press release. “The law that I signed today begins to right some of those wrongs by creating a comprehensive framework for a regulated market that prioritizes public health, public safety, criminal justice and equity. It will help eliminate the dangerous, unregulated market and support a new and equitable sector of our economy that will create jobs.”
Noting that nearby states are also moving to legalize marijuana, the governor said the new law helps to keep Connecticut “economically competitive.”
“This measure is comprehensive, protects our children and the most vulnerable in our communities, and will be viewed as a national model for regulating adult-use cannabis,” he said. “By signing this into law today, we are helping our state move beyond this terrible period of incarceration and injustice.”
“I think it’ll be the most comprehensive and best cannabis legalization bill in the country,” House Majority Leader Jason Rojas (D) said at the ceremony. “History will tell us if that’s true or not, but I feel confident in saying this is the best bill in the country and it’s going to move us in the direction of ensuring that we provide a well-regulated marketplace for adult-use cannabis for adults who want to participate in that kind of activity.”
Under the Connecticut measure, possession of marijuana by adults 21 and older will become legal on July 1. Commercial cannabis sales could begin as soon as next May, but the bill does not specify an exact start date.
The controversial provision that was added and then deleted in the face of Lamont’s veto threat would have allowed people with past cannabis arrests and convictions—as well as their parents, children and spouses—to qualify for social equity status when applying for marijuana business licenses. Previously the bill limited eligibility only to people who reside in areas that have been disproportionately affected by drug war convictions and arrests.
House lawmakers rejected the Senate-approved amendments, effectively returning the bill to the form in which it was originally introduced earlier this month. Members also added a provision that bars legislators, statewide elected officials, cannabis regulators and members of the social equity board from participating in the cannabis industry for two years after leaving government.
Connecticut’s law legalizing cannabis is comprehensive, protects our children and the most vulnerable in our communities, and will be viewed as a national model.
— Governor Ned Lamont (@GovNedLamont) June 22, 2021
Overall, the nearly 300-page bill closely aligns with a legalization measure that initially passed the Senate this month but then stalled on the House floor at the end of the regular session. It had been introduced by Democratic legislative leaders as a compromise incorporating elements of both Lamont’s own legalization proposal, which advanced through two legislative committees this year, as well as an equity-focused legalization bill by Rep. Robyn Porter (D).
“Twenty years ago I was arrested for simple possession,” Jason Ortiz, who served as a member of a cannabis work group that the governor convened last year and is executive director of Students for Sensible Drug Policy, told Marijuana Moment. “Today young people in Connecticut will not have to suffer the same fate, and that is something we should all be incredibly proud of.”
The now-signed bill, SB 1201, was originally introduced by House Speaker Matt Ritter (D) and Senate President Martin Looney (D).
Here are some key details of the legalization law:
- It would allow adults 21 and older to possess up to 1.5 ounces of cannabis starting on July 1 and establish a retail market. Legislative leaders anticipate sales would 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 would be entitled to half of those licenses.
- Equity applicants could also qualify for technical assistance, workforce training and funding to cover startup costs.
- A significant amount of tax revenue from cannabis sales would go toward broader community reinvestment targeting areas most affected by the criminal drug war.
- Home cultivation would be permitted—first for medical marijuana patients and later for adult-use consumers.
- Most criminal convictions for possession of less than four ounces of cannabis would be automatically expunged beginning in 2023.
- 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. Products designed to appeal to children would be forbidden.
- 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 could 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/or 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 simple 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.
- Municipalities with more than 50,000 residents would need to provide a designated area for public cannabis consumption.
- 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. Medical marijuana products would be exempt from the potency caps. Retailers would also need to provide access to low-THC and high-CBD products.
- 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.
- 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.
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Despite his veto threat, Lamont has been broadly supportive of legalization. The governor also said earlier this year that if a legalization measure wasn’t enacted this session, 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 at the time. “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.”
Today at 12PM, I will sign a bill legalizing and safely regulating the adult-use of cannabis in Connecticut.
— Governor Ned Lamont (@GovNedLamont) June 22, 2021
He last year that if the legislature wasn’t able to pass a legalization bill, he would 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 released last month.
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.”
Meanwhile in neighboring Rhode Island, a legislative committee recently approved a marijuana legalization bill backed by Senate leadership in that state.