Connecticut is on the verge of legalizing marijuana after lawmakers sent a cannabis reform bill to the desk of the state’s supportive governor on Thursday.
The latest action, a Senate vote of 16-11, caps a drama-filled week that at one point saw Gov. Ned Lamont (D) issue a threat to veto the legislation he largely supports over a specific provision on equity licensing eligibility.
On Wednesday the bill passed the House of Representatives, which had amended the version adopted by the Senate a day earlier to remove the controversial language, necessitating Thursday’s final vote on concurrence.
If Lamont signs the bill into law as expected, 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.
Sen. Gary Winfield (D), who shepherded the measure through the body, noted before the final vote that it came on the 50th anniversary of President Richard Nixon’s declaration of the war on drugs, which the senator said damaged communities that now stand to benefit from equity-focused legalization.
“We have operated for 50 years with unjust laws that target certain communities,” he said. “We have damaged the lives of human beings in the United States of America who are a certain hue, because of politics.”
In a statement after the vote, Lamont called it “fitting” for the move to come on the drug war anniversary.
“The war on cannabis, which was at its core a war on people in Black and Brown communities, not only caused injustices and increased disparities in our state, it did little to protect public health and safety,” he said. “I look forward to signing the bill and moving beyond this terrible period of incarceration and injustice.”
Here’s my statement on final approval by the Connecticut General Assembly of legislation legalizing adult-use cannabis.
I look forward to signing the bill and moving beyond this terrible period of incarceration and injustice. pic.twitter.com/H4DYBcbe0K
— Governor Ned Lamont (@GovNedLamont) June 17, 2021
On Tuesday, senators had adopted an amendment allowing 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.
Half of all business licenses under the new system would need to be issued to social equity applicants.
While the provision expanding equity eligibility based on past arrests and convictions was intended to help redress harms caused by the war on drugs, Lamont’s chief of staff, Paul Mounds Jr., said in a statement that it would “open the floodgates for tens of thousands of previously ineligible applicants to enter the adult-use cannabis industry.”
The rule “allows just about anyone with a history of cannabis crimes or a member of their family, regardless of financial means, who was once arrested on simple possession to be considered with the same weight as someone from a neighborhood who has seen many of their friends and loved ones face significant penalties and discrimination due to their past cannabis crimes,” the statement said.
A second Senate amendment, which reportedly was introduced to address the governor’s stated concerns, clarified that anyone whose income is more than three times the state’s median income—regardless of criminal record or place of residence—could not qualify for social equity status. But on Wednesday morning, Lamont again told reporters that he wouldn’t sign the bill in the form passed by the Senate.
In response, House lawmakers rejected both Senate-approved amendments, essentially returning the bill to the form in which it was originally introduced on Monday—then made one additional change.
I just presided over the Senate’s historic vote legalizing adult-use cannabis.
This is a good bill, grounded in equity and bringing justice to communities disproportionately harmed by the war on drugs. I look forward to seeing @GovNedLamont sign it into law! https://t.co/gloLnlnyUn
— Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz (@LGSusanB) June 17, 2021
After stripping the Senate changes, House lawmakers added back in a Senate-passed 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. That restriction was introduced in response to Republican concerns that legalization would otherwise create opportunities for officials to benefit themselves by entering an industry they previously influenced.
Despite the flurry of activity on the latest proposal, much of the nearly 300-page bill resembles a legalization measure that passed the Senate last week, which went on to stall on the House floor during the final hours of the regular session. That measure was pitched 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).
The current bill, SB 1201, was originally introduced Monday by House Speaker Matt Ritter (D) and Senate President Martin Looney (D).
Here are some key details of the current legalization proposal:
- 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. Last week he told reporters that he has “a strong point of view to do whatever it takes to get this over the finish line.”
“Around the country, we have red states and blue states that are passing this and doing it on a very careful, regulated way—and I think we’re ready to do the same.”
The governor also said that if a legalization measure isn’t enacted this year, 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 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 on Monday approved a marijuana legalization bill backed by Senate leadership in that state.
Photo courtesy of Max Pixel.