Connecticut Senate Approves Marijuana Legalization Bill, Days Before Session Ends
The Connecticut Senate early Tuesday morning passed a bill to legalize marijuana, sending the proposal to the House for final approval with just days left in the legislative session.
House leaders say they plan to take up the legislation in that chamber before Wednesday’s end-of-session deadline but after first tackling the state budget.
The cannabis bill is the product of weeks of negotiations between legislative leaders and Gov. Ned Lamont’s (D) office. Finalized language was introduced only on Saturday, giving lawmakers little time to review the roughly 300-page proposal.
But during a marathon floor debate that stretched into the early hours Tuesday morning, the Senate passed the bill in a 19–17 vote.
“We have seen what has been wrought by having a war on drugs,” Sen. Gary Winfield (D) said on the floor before the vote. “Whole communities have been decimated. And some people will say, ‘Well, there are not a lot of people in our state in jail for cannabis today,’ but there are vestigial ways in which communities are still impacted by what we were doing.”
Noting that cannabis was once available in American apothecaries, Winfield ran through the history of the drug war and argued that marijuana prohibition’s racist origins and consequences continue to be felt today.
“The reason I think we should legalize cannabis is not because of the money—that’s an important part of this,” he added, “but because we should have never made cannabis an illegal drug. It should never have been prohibited. It should never have been a Schedule I drug, particularly given how it got there.”
Legislation currently being debated begins the necessary and long-overdue work of fixing the damage caused by decades of failed drug policies. #legalizecannabis pic.twitter.com/lcQF7MuJtQ
— CT Senate Democrats (@CTSenateDems) June 8, 2021
Asked whether there will be enough support in the House to pass the measure, Majority Leader Jason Rojas (D) said earlier Monday that he believes the votes will be there—but he’s “still answering lots of questions” from members about specific provisions.
“I’m confident that we’ll get there,” he said.
House Speaker Matt Ritter (D) added that “we do expect it to pass.”
“We don’t think we’ll have 97 votes,” he said, referring to the total number of Democratic members in the body. “We understand there will be noes in our caucus … But we’ve heard from a few people on the other side of the aisle too that have had a chance to digest and stuff, and I would say there’s a few people involved in conversations there too.”
He also left open the possibility that opponents may attempt to run out the clock and push the debate on the legalization measure all the way to the session’s mandated end at midnight on Wednesday. But if that happens, he said, he could call lawmakers back into a special session as early as the following day to tackle the issue.
On the Senate floor, Republicans pushed back strongly against the proposal, arguing that broadly legalizing marijuana would risk condoning cannabis use, especially among youth.
“I do believe this is the wrong direction for the state of Connecticut. I think there’s so many unanswered questions,” said Sen. John Kissel (R), who said he took credit for being a chief proponent and framer of the state’s existing medical marijuana law.
“When you call it recreational marijuana, it sounds like, you know, a playground, like an amusement park, like playing cards with your friends,” he continued. “Well, it might be a little more dangerous than that, you know?”
Sen. Dan Champagne (R), a former law enforcement officer, argued the bill would create headaches for police. He pressed Winfield on the difficulties of identifying acute cannabis intoxication in drivers and warned of high costs involved with training drug recognition experts who can identify people under the influence of marijuana. He also worried that certain provisions, such as allowing individuals to possess up to five ounces of cannabis in their car glove box, could fuel the illicit market.
“I figured we’d have a lot more security, a lot more, ‘This is what we’re going to do to protect people,’” he said. “Instead I see giveaways to the unions. I see a slush fund being created. I just see a lot of problems in here. I fear for our youth.”
Prior to negotiations, the governor backed a separate legalization proposal that received significant criticism from advocates for a lack of social equity provisions aimed at correcting the wrongs of the drug war. That legislation moved through two committees, but it will not be the vehicle for the reform moving forward.
Here are some key details about the new, 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.
Lawmakers considered a number of amendments on the floor prior to the final vote. Most were offered by Republicans and rejected along party lines.
One amendment from Winfield, which was adopted on a voice vote, made 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.
Among the amendments that failed were an effort to require marijuana to be packaged with information from the Centers for Disease Control and prevention about “the potential harmful health effects of cannabis use” and a separate push to remove labor union requirements that would apply to marijuana businesses.
The Senate also rejected an amendment from Sen. Heather Somers (R) that, among other changes, would have delayed legalization until 2024 and established a study to analyze cannabis’s effects on adolescent brains, addiction, mental illness and impaired driving.
“We’re legitimizing a highly potent, mind-altering drug to collect our little piece of gold that we may get from it,” Somers said. “This bill may generate $80 million in revenue, but the costs will well outstrip any kind of revenue we’ll see come in.”
A fiscal note of the unamended 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.
Legalization advocates cheered the bill’s Senate passage.
“Today is an historic day, where equity advocates, labor unions and small business owners were able to ensure their communities would be a foundation of the new cannabis industry as we end the practice of arresting our youth and communities of color for cannabis,” Jason Ortiz, executive director of Students for Sensible Drug Policy, told Marijuana Moment.
“The job is not done yet but this is a huge step forward toward a more sensible drug policy in Connecticut,” added Ortiz, who served a member of a legalization working group assembled by Lamont that issued recommendations on social equity late last year.
According to a recent @sacredheartuniv poll, over 61% of #Connecticut residents support erasure of convictions for #recreationalcannabis offenses. pic.twitter.com/bSUopNsMnp
— CT Senate Democrats (@CTSenateDems) June 8, 2021
DeVaughn Ward, senior legislative council for Marijuana Policy project, called the bill’s passage “a huge step forward in ending the failed policies of cannabis prohibition.”
“The bill not only removes policies that have been weaponized against communities of color, but also generates thousands of jobs, and directs millions of dollars in revenue to Connecticut communities,” he told Marijuana Moment. “Legislative leaders, Gov. Lamont, advocates and the Connecticut cannabis community should be applauded for their role in shaping this historic measure. We strongly urge the Connecticut House to pass the bill before the June 9th session deadline.”
Prior to the compromise bill, progressive Democrats had signaled that they feel legislative leaders and the governor were moving too quickly and sidestepping important social equity considerations. Rep. Anne Hughes (D), cochair of the Progressive Caucus, told Marijuana Moment last week 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.
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.
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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.”
Ritter said late last month that he feels there’s a 57-43 chance that the legislation is approved, whereas he previously gave it a 50-50 chance.
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.
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