With just hours left to go in Connecticut’s regular legislative session, House lawmakers on Wednesday decided to delay a planned vote on legalizing marijuana in the state. The proposal, which narrowly passed the Senate on Tuesday, will be taken up again during a special session by the end of the month.
Earlier in the day, House Speaker Matt Ritter (D) had said the chamber could still take up the legislation before the midnight deadline on the current session, but left open the possibility it might not happen.
“We will be voting in the next week on that bill,” he said during a press briefing Wednesday morning. “Could be today, could be tomorrow, could be Friday, could be Saturday, could be Sunday—we will be getting that bill passed.”
Democratic leaders have insisted they have the votes to push through the nearly 300-page cannabis bill introduced over the weekend, but Republicans have broadly opposed it. Many expected a drawn-out debate Wednesday night, with GOP representatives trying to run out the clock to prevent a vote.
“It’s one thing to have an honest, robust debate on a complicated topic,” Ritter said. “The concern of my caucus is, is it four or five people that never want to stop?”
By mid-afternoon, Ritter had announced that the bill wouldn’t be called at all on Wednesday. Instead, legalization will be taken up again during a special legislative session, which is not yet scheduled but will take place before the fiscal year ends on June 30. The current bill will technically die at midnight on Wednesday, meaning a new legislative vehicle will have to clear both chambers during the special session.
— John Craven (@johncraven1) June 9, 2021
House Majority Leader Jason Rojas (D) will be coordinating any changes to the bill between now and then, Ritter said.
At Monday’s briefing, Rojas said he’s open to working with Republicans but is unlikely to amend the bill itself.
“I know they’re concerned about how late the bill came out. I guess I would share my concern about how late they chose to come to the table,” he said. “I’m still willing to listen and consider some of the changes they might make. I don’t know that we would amend the bill necessarily, but we’d find another vehicle to potentially accommodate some of the requests.”
Groups in favor of cannabis legalization downplayed the delay. DeVaughn Ward, senior legislative counsel for Marijuana Policy Project, told Marijuana Moment that the group is “encouraged that legislative leadership is committed to getting the bill done.”
“While we’d hoped the bill would be past the finish line during the regular session, voting a few days later will in no way delay legalization,” he said. “Legal possession will start on July 1 whether the bill passes today or a little later.”
Ward also noted that, if the policy change is adopted, Connecticut would be the third state to pass legalization during a special session this year, after New Mexico and Virginia. “We’re glad legislatures are recognizing that this long overdue reform is worth working overtime to get done and get done right,” he said.
The current bill, Senate Bill 1118, is the product of weeks of negotiations between legislative leaders and Gov. Ned Lamont’s (D) office. It incorporates elements of Lamont’s own proposal, SB 888, as well as an equity-focused legalization bill, HB 6377, from Rep. Robyn Porter (D).
As passed by the Senate, the legislation would legalize personal possession and use of cannabis by adults 21 and older and eventually launch a regulated commercial cannabis market in Connecticut, licensing growers, retailers, manufacturers and delivery services. The Department of Consumer Protection (DCP) would be in charge of licensing and regulating cannabis businesses, with legal sales expected to begin in mid-2022.
Half of all business licenses would need to be issued to 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. Those applicants could also qualify for technical assistance, workforce training and funding to cover startup costs. Much of the revenue from the new commercial market would be reinvested back into communities hit hardest by the drug war.
For those who don’t want to buy cannabis commercially, home cultivation would also be allowed under the bill—first for medical patients, then eventually for all adults 21 and older.
Here are some key details about the 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 on 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.
Connecticut can legalize marijuana TODAY, but a few Republicans might block it.
"House Republicans signaled Tuesday they were prepared to launch a lengthy fight against a cannabis legalization bill passed by the Senate"https://t.co/yUfJ2aYyoP
— Connecticut Dems (@CTDems) June 9, 2021
Republicans, however, have warned that legalization would cause problems for law enforcement, create public health hazards and risk normalizing youth cannabis use. GOP lawmakers in the House, including Rep. Vincent Candelora, have also criticized the bill after noticing a provision, since removed, that would allow a grower to bypass the state’s lottery licensing system.
Republicans have also blasted what they’ve said are severe public health risks from legalization. “We’re legitimizing a highly potent, mind-altering drug to collect our little piece of gold that we may get from it,” Sen. Heather Somers (R) said Monday on the Senate floor. “This bill may generate $80 million in revenue, but the costs will well outstrip any kind of revenue we’ll see come in.”
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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 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 released last week.
The competing legalization measure from Rep. Robyn Porter (D), which is favored by many legalization advocates for 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.”
But while advocates have strongly criticized the governor’s plan as inadequate when it comes to equity provisions, Ritter said in March that “optimism abounds” as lawmakers work to merge proposals into a final legalization bill.
Rojas also said that “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.
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.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan