A bill to legalize marijuana in Connecticut that’s being backed by the governor was approved by a key committee on Tuesday—but it “remains a work in progress,” the chairman said.
The legislation, which has been amended since its introduction to include a series of new social equity provisions, advanced through the legislature’s Judiciary Committee after a 22-16 vote.
But it’s not the only legalization bill that lawmakers are considering. A competing proposal from Rep. Robyn Porter (D) was approved in the Labor and Public Employees Committee last month.
With the new amendments to Gov. Ned Lamont’s (D) bill, the measures are more closely aligned.
“I would submit that that is long overdue here in the state of Connecticut for a whole host of reasons, not the least of which is that this is a drug that is widely believed to be less addictive and less harmful to the body than many other drugs that we already have legalized and regulate here in the state of Connecticut, including tobacco and alcohol,” Judiciary Committee Chairman Steven Stafstrom (D) said in his opening remarks.
But he reiterated throughout the hearing that while the governor’s bill is “further along and takes into account some of the concerns and criticisms of the bill we heard,” it is “not the end of the conversation.”
“I’m sure we’ll see additional revisions as it moves through the legislative process and its next committee of assignment,” Stafstrom said, adding that it would likely be referred to the Finance Committee next.
As revised, the governor’s legislation would set aside 40 percent of eligible cannabis business license types for social equity applicants.
To qualify as a social equity applicant, a business must have at least 51 percent ownership by a person with a cannabis-related arrest or conviction, someone whose immediate family faced such a conviction, whose lived in a “disproportionately affected community” for five of the past 10 years or who is a resident of tribal land. A social equity applicant can also be a business under day-to-day management by such persons who meet the criteria. Advocates say it shouldn’t be an either/or standard, however, and that communities that were harmed by the drug war must be among those who stand to benefit by actually owning legal cannabis businesses.
The Department of Consumer Protection would be responsible for regulating the market, and they could begin accepting applications for social equity business applicants starting on July 1. Existing medical cannabis dispensaries could also start having adult-use business license applications at that time. Starting in January 2024, the department could accept applications from any person.
A Cannabis Control Commission would further develop guidelines for the issuance of licenses. Meanwhile, a 12-member Social Equity Council would be established to help develop equity criteria, licensing policy and tax revenue allocation.
In general, the bill would allow adults 21 and older to purchase marijuana products from licensed retailers, possess up to one and a half ounces of cannabis on one’s person and up to five ounces in a person’s home.
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It would also decriminalize possession of up to four ounces. And there’s now an automatic expungements provision that provides for the free erasure of past marijuana convictions for possession or sales of up to four ounces of cannabis or six mature plants.
Medical cannabis patients would be able to legally grow up to six plants for personal use starting in May 2022, while cultivation for recreational use would be decriminalized subject to a fine.
Law enforcement would not be allowed to justify a search based on the odor of marijuana.
For the first two years of implementation, all cannabis tax revenue would go to the state general fund. After three years of legal sales, 55 percent of the revenue would go to a Cannabis Equity and Innovation Fund, 15 percent would go to drug prevention and recovery programs and 30 percent would support the general fund.
Equity advocates had strongly pushed back on the specifics of the legislation, however, saying that its provisions as introduced were inadequate.
“We’re very encouraged by the changes reflected in this substitute bill,” DeVaughn Ward, senior legislative counsel of the Marijuana Policy Project, told Marijuana Moment. “This latest draft reflects real progress made over weeks of conversations with advocates and legislators.”
“Although I anticipate negotiations and modifications to continue over the coming weeks, this latest offering gives me confidence that legalization in Connecticut is on the horizon this legislative session,” he said.
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.”
Jason Ortiz, president of the Minority Cannabis Business Association, told Marijuana Moment that the revised bill “is a clear victory for everyone who has been pushing for equity and justice in cannabis.”
“Home grow rights are expanded, equity programs are more defined, our tribal residents are included and our youth are protected,” Ortiz, who also served on Lamont’s cannabis work group, said. “It’s by no means a final product but we can all breathe a bit easier knowing this is the baseline moving forward.”
For his part, House Speaker Matthew Ritter (D) said last month that “optimism abounds” as lawmakers work to merge proposals into a final legalization bill.
Majority Leader Jason Rojas (D) said “in principle, equity is important to both the administration and the legislature, and we’re going to work through those details.”
To that end, the majority leader said that working groups have been formed in the Democratic caucuses of the legislature to go through the governor’s proposal and the committee-approved reform bill.
In February, a Lamont administration official stressed during a hearing in the House Judiciary Committee that Lamont’s proposal it is “not a final bill,” and they want activists “at the table” to further inform the legislation.
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.
Ritter 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.” The governor said in an interview earlier this year that he puts the odds of his legislation passing at “60-40 percent chance.”
Should that effort fail, the speaker said he will move to put a constitutional question on the state’s 2022 ballot that would leave the matter to voters.
That would likely prove popular, as a poll released last month found that 66 percent of Connecticut adults favor legalization, and the same percentage of respondents back expunging prior cannabis records.
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 text of the amended legalization bill below:
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.