Connecticut’s Senate approved a marijuana legalization bill during a special legislative session on Tuesday in a 19–12 vote.
The measure now proceeds to the House, which is expected to take it up on Wednesday. Meanwhile, however, Gov. Ned Lamont (D), who has been broadly supportive of legalization, threatened to veto the proposal over social equity eligibility rules.
Senate lawmakers passed largely similar legislation just a week ago on an even slimmer, 19–12 vote—but hours before the regular session came to a close, House leaders announced they would delay action in that chamber until this week’s special session. They’ve repeatedly said they have the votes to usher in the policy change despite pushback from Republicans and remaining skepticism from some Democrats.
Sen. Gary Winfield (D), who spoke on behalf of the bill during Tuesday’s floor debate, stressed that the bill would not only create and regulate a new industry but also address past criminal drug policies that have disproportionately harmed people of color.
“The conversation about cannabis legalization also is a conversation about policing in certain communities, the way policing has happened,” Winfield said, pointing to “disproportionate contact between communities of color and police, and the outgrowth of that.”
Senate President Martin Looney (D) said cannabis policy needs to be looked at with a “historical view.”
“What has been done to our children in arresting them incarcerating them and branding them with criminal records for decades over possession of small amounts of marijuana and blighting their whole lives?” he asked. “That’s the harm that’s been done to our children by our current regimen of laws.”
At one point during the debate, Lamont’s office issued a statement threatening to veto the legislation over a provision that would let anyone with a past cannabis arrest or conviction receive priority status for a marijuana license regardless of their wealth. An amendment, however, was adopted in an attempt to address that concern by setting an income limit for those applicants.
It was not immediately clear whether the new provision setting an income limit would address the governor’s concerns, however. If House lawmakers approve additional changes, the measure would need to return to the Senate for a concurrence vote before heading to Lamont’s desk.
#BREAKING @GovNedLamont now threatening to veto the cannabis bill over changes made this afternoon. As we speak, Sen @Gary4CT is attempting to salvage the bill with language that appeases Lamont, @Porter4DaPeople, AND advocates https://t.co/62qAhXJtRQ pic.twitter.com/J7MLKMR9ko
— John Craven (@johncraven1) June 15, 2021
With Democrats confident that they had enough votes to pass the bill, most of the debate consisted of pushback from Republicans, who oppose the policy change on the grounds it would normalize cannabis use, particularly among young people, and cause public safety problems.
Sen. Dan Champagne (R) repeatedly referred to the bill as “a drug dealer’s dream.”
Others, however, said they felt the latest bill is at least an improvement over past versions.
“I think a lot of the provisions in the amendment move the bill in a positive direction from my perspective,” said Sen. John Kissel (R), “even though I don’t support the legalization of what’s called colloquially recreational use of marijuana.”
Perhaps the most significant change to the proposal, however, came in a 288-page amendment introduced shortly before Tuesday’s floor debate by Sen. Gary Winfield (D). Among other revisions, the amendment added language that would expand eligibility for the state’s social equity licensing program to include people with past cannabis arrests or convictions.
Other notable changes from the bill passed last week include a ban on participation in the marijuana industry for certain state employees and officials. The rule would prevent former cannabis regulators, members or employees of the new social equity council, lawmakers and other statewide elected officials from applying for marijuana business licenses for a period of two years after they leave state service.
The new bill also removes a provision that would have let regulators decide whether to continue allowing home cultivation of marijuana for personal use, which is otherwise permitted under the proposal.
Among other revisions, the latest legislation clarifies that product labels must include THC and CBD amounts by package and serving size, directs most fees and taxes to a new state cannabis regulatory and investment account, modifies public records rules, adjusts community service requirements for certain violations and requires that the state Department of Public Health issue annual reports on marijuana-related public health information beginning in 2023.
The bulk of the nearly 300-page bill, however, resembles the version passed last week by the Senate. It would legalize personal possession and use of cannabis by adults 21 and older and eventually launch a regulated commercial cannabis market.
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 with who have lived in geographic areas disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs as well as those with past cannabis arrests or convictions. A second amendment from Winfield, approved prior to the full floor vote, expanded an income limit for social equity applicants to clarify that no individual who makes more than three times the state’s median income would be eligible for the status.
Equity 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 residents 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. Legislative leaders anticipate sales to launch in May 2022, though the bill includes no official start date.
- 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.
- 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/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 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. Medical marijuana products would be exempt from the potency caps. 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.
- 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 latest bill also includes changes adopted as an amendment in the Senate last week. Among other revisions, it deleted 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 expanded 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 exempted medical marijuana from potency limits that apply to adult-use products.
A fiscal note for the legislation 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.
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Lamont, who introduced his own legalization bill earlier this year, urged the legislature to adopt the policy change during a press briefing late last week.
“I have a strong point of view to do whatever it takes to get this over the finish line,” he said. “Around the country, we have red states and blue states that are passing this and doing it in a very careful, regulated way—and I think we’re ready to do the same.”
Some advocates initially criticized an early version of the new bill for failing to include a provision aimed at redressing individual harm caused by the criminal drug war, which disproportionately affected Black and brown people.
A provision that was in the governor’s original bill, SB 888, as well as separate legalization legislation by Rep. Robyn Porter (D), would have granted social equity status to cannabis business license applicants if they or a parent, spouse or child had been arrested or convicted of a past cannabis crime. That criterion was left out of the legislation the Senate passed last week and the new bill when it was introduced on Monday, but Winfield’s striking amendment added it in. Other qualifications for social equity status include residency in low-income or high-unemployment areas or those that have seen disproportionate policing under prohibition.
Jason Ortiz, executive director of Students for Sensible Drug Policy, posted to Facebook on Monday that the initial omission of the clause meant “that the people most impacted by over policing will be will be intentionally taken out of the cannabis equity program.”
“The laws that made my and my community into ‘criminals’ were put there for racist and political reasons,” he wrote. “People have profited from our suffering and our imprisonment. And now they won’t even admit that the people who were locked up deserve a shot at a license.”
“Imagine having multiple years to study one basic concept and on gameday not understanding the foundational concept of social equity,” added Ortiz, who served as a member of the governor’s legalization working group that issued recommendations on social equity late last year.
Ortiz included an image of what appears to be a friends-only Facebook post by Porter, whose own legalization proposal prioritized social equity and reinvestment into communities hit hardest by the drug war. That bill, which was favored by many advocates for its focus on equity, passed the House Labor and Public Employees Committee in March but did not proceed further.
“So, the cannabis bill running tomorrow in the Senate doesn’t have the following language, which is the most CRITICAL component of the ‘social equity applicant definition,'” the post says, referencing the provision about past cannabis records making applicants eligible for social equity status. “We’ve gone from being INTENTIONALLY TARGETED to INTENTIONALLY EXCLUDED. Now, where is the EQUITY in that?”
Those concerns were apparently heard by legislative leaders, however, and the conviction qualifying criteria was added in Winfield’s large-scale amendment that the Senate adopted.
“The notion that those people might not be included in the [social equity] definition—while I don’t believe that’s what the definition did—was problematic for many people that I’ve had conversation with,” Winfield said during floor debate.
Legalization advocates at Marijuana Policy Project cheered the amended bill’s passage.
“I’m grateful that today the Senate reaffirmed their commitment to ending the failed policies of cannabis prohibition,” DeVaughn Ward, senior legislative counsel for the group, told Marijuana Moment in an email. “Legislative leaders, the governor and advocates should be applauded for their efforts as this bill contains some of the strongest equity provisions in the country. I’m hopeful the House will follow the Senate’s lead tomorrow and end the devastating war on marijuana in Connecticut.”
The bill passed by senators on Tuesday is the result of a compromise between legislative Democrats and the governor’s office, and proponents have said it includes elements of both Porter’s HB 6377 and Lamont’s SB 888, which moved through two committees during the regular session.
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 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 that’s being championed by Senate leadership in that state.