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Connecticut Lawmakers Hold Hearing On Governor’s Marijuana Legalization Bill

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A key Connecticut committee held a lengthy hearing on Monday about a marijuana legalization bill that legislative leaders filed on behalf of Gov. Ned Lamont (D).

While the General Assembly’s Judiciary Committee did not vote on the proposal during the meeting, the panel’s discussion is the first step in what supporters hope will be a process that ends up in the state being one of the next to end cannabis prohibition this year.

Several top state officials testified in support of the legislation.

“We can’t stick our heads in the sand. Cannabis will be increasingly available to the residents of Connecticut,” Jonathan Harris, senior advisor to the governor, told lawmakers in opening remarks at the hearing, referring to the growing number of other states in the region that are legalizing marijuana. “We need to come together on how to most effectively protect our children and public health and safety.”

If the bill is enacted, adults 21 and older could legally possess up to 1.5 ounces of marijuana. Regulators would establish a system of licensing for cannabis growers, retailers and other businesses. There would be a three percent tax on sales, and retailers and manufacturers would be taxed $1.25 per dry weight gram of cannabis flower. Part of the tax revenue would go toward communities disproportionately impacted by prohibition.

The bill contains other social equity provisions, including a mechanism for people with prior cannabis convictions to have their records expunged. A nine-member “Cannabis Equity Commission” would be directed to encourage “participation in the cannabis industry by persons from communities that have been disproportionately harmed by cannabis prohibition and enforcement.” The commission would establish micro-licenses for cannabis retail and delivery operations, and would be charged with making recommendations on further restorative justice policies by January 1 of next year.

“SB16 puts equity front and center through the creation of an equity specific commission to deep dive into crafting an effective and actionable plan to undo the damage done by the racist war on drugs” Jason Ortiz, the Connecticut-based president of the Minority Cannabis Business Association (MCBA), told Marijuana Moment. “Creating that plan is what MCBA is here to do, and for that reason we support SB16.”

In 2019, three separate bills containing components of a comprehensive cannabis legalization plan advanced in several committees but never received House or Senate floor votes before the session ended.

The governor, who also voiced support for legalization last year, renewed his call for cannabis legalization during his State of the State address last month and included funding in his budget proposal to support the hiring of government employees to help establish a regulatory framework for marijuana.

At a meeting in December, Lamont and governors from other neighboring states agreed to principles of a coordinated regional approach to marijuana legalization.

Miriam Delphim-Rittmon, commissioner of the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, said at the hearing that the legislation proposes a “thoughtful framework…that prioritizes public health, public safety and social justice.”

DeVaughn Ward, senior legislative counsel for the Marijuana Policy Project, told Marijuana Moment that the state officials who testified at the hearing “are all confirming what we already know to be true—prohibition has been a failed policy and SB 16 represents a sensible, common sense approach to regulation in order to protect public health and safety and start to repair the harms caused by prohibition.”

Under the bill, localities would be allowed to prohibit marijuana retail businesses or “establish reasonable restrictions regarding the hours and signage” for those operations, but they would not be able to ban delivery services from operating in their jurisdictions.

Most employers would be prohibited from requiring a drug test for cannabis metabolites as a condition of employment, and they wouldn’t be able to otherwise discriminate against workers who use marijuana outside of the workplace.

“Cannabis is widely available in Connecticut today, and by legalizing and regulating it, we can implement stronger public health and safety standards. Any legislation legalizing cannabis must put a strong emphasis on equity and opportunity for communities that have borne a disproportionate burden of the war on drugs, and this legislation establishes a framework to do that,” Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin (D) said at a press conference ahead of the hearing. “With multiple states in New England already regulating legal cannabis, it’s time for Connecticut to move forward with a responsible regime for legalization and regulation.”

If the bill is enacted, regulators would be charged with studying and making recommendations on several additional policy areas. For example, they would weigh in on whether home cultivation of marijuana and on-site consumption areas should be allowed. They would also examine the issue of state-run marijuana retail operations.

Existing registration fees for medical cannabis patients would be eliminated under the measure.

The Judiciary Committee may vote in the coming weeks on amendments or a potential substitute version of the legislation, after which point it will move to the Senate floor—though it is possible that lawmakers will refer the bill to other panels prior to a vote by the full body.

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This story has been updated with a revised statement from Bronin to replace an earlier version misattributed to him in a press release.

Photo courtesy of Max Pixel.

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Tom Angell is the editor of Marijuana Moment. A 20-year veteran in the cannabis law reform movement, he covers the policy and politics of marijuana. Separately, he founded the nonprofit Marijuana Majority. Previously he reported for Marijuana.com and MassRoots, and handled media relations and campaigns for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition and Students for Sensible Drug Policy.

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