Connecticut Lawmakers Finally Reach Marijuana Legalization Deal With Governor
Top Connecticut lawmakers announced on Friday that they have finally reached a deal on a bill to legalize marijuana, and they’re now circulating the finalized language among members ahead of votes that are expected soon.
Following weeks of talks with Gov. Ned Lamont’s (D) office, House Majority Leader Jason Rojas (D) said negotiators now have a “pencils down” agreement. But lawmakers will need to move quickly if they hope to pass the legislation ahead of Wednesday’s end of session deadline.
“Now we can actually go to people and say this is the final product,” House Speaker Matt Ritter (D) said.
“We’re done negotiating and taking all the wonderful ideas that people have wanted to contribute to this piece of legislation,” Rojas added.
But while the lawmakers gave some detail about the basic components of the proposal, the text is still not publicly available.
Watch the House leaders discuss the marijuana legalization deal, around 14:40 and 21:40 into the video below:
The main changes that have been worked into the legislation have been “strengthening our attempts to ensure that this new marketplace is really open to as broad a spectrum of individuals who want to enter that marketplace than just having large corporate or over-capitalized interest dominating the market,” Rojas said.
Ritter emphasized that the bill will need to move “quickly” to the Senate floor, and that needs to happen before Wednesday in order to avoid having opponents kill the measure by running out the clock.
Asked about the prospects of garnering bipartisan support, the majority leader said Republicans “live up to libertarian values that I think some of them hold, yes, but we’ll see.”
“It’s an almost 300-page document—one of the most complicated pieces of legislation I’ve ever been involved with, we’re standing up an entirely new market,” he said. “And certainly there’s been a lot of interest from multiple parties within the legislature, within the administration, lots of advocates out there.”
He added that legislative staff worked with the governor’s team until 2:30 AM on Friday morning to get the deal done.
But pressed on details about the proposal that were reported by CT Post earlier this week, Rojas declined to confirm the accuracy of the article, though he did give some details, including that recreational sales would be expected to start by May 2022.
“I think it’s like any major piece of legislation. There are going to be people who are happy with it, there will be people who are less than happy with it. You take the good with the bad,” he said. “A lot of compromises have been made, we all know that—a lot of tension and a lot of emotion went into this legislation this year. I think, overall, people are going to see an adult-use cannabis bill that is perhaps the best in the country.”
But in order to meet that high standard, advocates are looking for especially strong equity components to right the wrongs of prohibition. And the early details that have surfaced are not satisfying those activists.
Specifically, they’re taking issue with a proposal to make it so those who qualify as equity business applicants would have to partner up with existing medical cannabis firms in the state to learn the trade.
In order to obtain an adult-use license, the state’s four current medical cannabis cultivators could pay a $2 million fee or a reduced payment if they enter into such equity partnerships.
Equity businesses would be defined as those that are owned by people who grew up or live in certain zip codes and who have annual income of less than $250,000. During negotiations, a proposal to give licensing priority to people who’ve faced drug convictions was reportedly abandoned.
All new cultivators would consist of equity applicants, and to obtain a license they would have to pay a $3 million fee—a steep sum, the outlet reported. Existing marijuana companies that enter into partnerships with equity applicants would need to either put $500,000 into an equity fund or devote five percent of floor space and potentially five percent of profits to the partners.
Advocates say the requirement that upstart equity businesses would need to work with—and share profits with—existing big cannabis companies is a non-starter.
Here are some additional details about the forthcoming cannabis compromise legislation, according to CT Post:
- Growing up to six plants for personal use would be decriminalized initially and “could become fully legal within three years,” according to the report. Rojas indicated on Thursday, however, that medical marijuana patients would be able to lawfully grow their own medicine.
- The number of dispensaries is not specified in the bill and would be determined by market forces. New licenses would be awarded by lottery, and it’s not clear when sales would begin.
- The state’s general sales tax of 6.35 percent would apply to cannabis, and additional excise taxes of about double that amount would also be added, with 80 percent of revenue from the latter going to a social equity fund and 20 percent being allocated for mental health and addiction services.
- Testing labs would collect marijuana samples directly from cultivation facilities instead of allowing growers to choose samples to send in for testing.
- Marijuana businesses would need to operate under “project labor agreements” to pay union-scale wages. They would also have to sign agreements with labor organizations under which workers would agree to binding arbitration for dispute resolution and would not have the right to go on strike.
The bill text is not yet publicly available, however, and so the final details remain to be seen.
After circulating the proposal among members, the plan is to first take the legislation up in the Senate, where the compromise language is expected to be incorporated into a legalization bill backed by the governor that’s moved through two committees.
The measure may face pushback from progressive Democrats who has signaled that they feel legislative leaders and the governor are moving too quickly and sidestepping important social equity considerations.
Rep. Anne Hughes (D), cochair of the Progressive Caucus, told Marijuana Moment on Tuesday that “we want to do it right,” and that may mean tackling the reform in a special session—an option opposed by leadership and the governor.
Ritter said last week that he feels there’s a 57-43 chance that the legislation is approved, whereas he previously gave it a 50-50 chance. But it’s uncertain whether he feels those odds have changed given the time restraints and pushback from Democratic members.
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.”
Ritter similarly 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, a survey from Sacred Heart University that was released last week found.
A 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.
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Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.