When Connecticut’s legislature convenes for its 2020 session next month, top lawmakers say marijuana legalization will be a priority.
While legislation to legalize cannabis for adult use in the state advanced in several committees last year, disagreements about certain provisions such as how to allocating revenue ultimately derailed those efforts.
This time around, however, the General Assembly is positioned to build on those bills and craft a passable measure. That’s according to Senate President Pro-Tem Martin Looney (D).
“We are revisiting legalizing recreational cannabis because we see that most of our neighboring states have already done it or want to do it this year,” Looney told CT Insider earlier this month. “We had three very detailed bills on this last year, so I think we’re well prepared to do that when the time comes. We clearly need additional revenue and anecdotally we hear about people who travel to Massachusetts to purchase it.”
“We’re very well prepared to enact the legalization bill because we have the statutory framework already drafted,” he said in a separate interview. “It’s absolutely essential, I think, that we move on this front. We need the revenue.”
Leaders of key committees met last week to discuss what a legalization push could look like this year, and the Senate Democratic caucus is expected to outline the contours of a new proposal on Thursday, according to the Hartford Courant.
There were some who felt the legislature was only positioned to put the question of legalization to voters in the form of a proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot—a process that would mean legal sales wouldn’t go online until 2024. “At least a constitutional amendment would be forward movement,” Rep. Josh Elliott (D) told CT News Junkie.
But Gov. Ned Lamont (D), who’s been having ongoing conversations with the governors of neighboring states about coordinating a regional legalization model, isn’t supportive of that process, with a spokesperson stating that the “administration doesn’t believe the Connecticut Constitution is the proper venue for these kinds of policy decisions.”
“Making changes in statute is the best venue for the path to the legalization of marijuana for adult use,” the spokesperson said.
Lamont is instead pushing the legislature to pursue the policy change directly in the coming three-month session, and he’s stressing the importance of regulating cannabis to disrupt the illicit market.
“I think the idea that we’d be isolated by ourselves and the idea that you hand this over to the black market is dangerous,” the governor said in a recent TV appearance. “You have no idea what they’re doing, you want a carefully regulated market. How fast this happens in Connecticut—look, I’ve got to bring people along, I’ve got to talk to families, I’ve got to let them know that we’re going to do this in a very careful and thoughtful way.”
Connecticut can learn from Colorado’s example, the governor argued.
“They got rid of the black market. They got rid of a lot of the most dangerous substances that the black market was trying to sell. I think their vaping-related illnesses are down,” he said. “They’ve raised some real revenue from this—some of which is going to opioid addiction and treatment and other things.”
“Look, we didn’t have to be the first out of the box with this, but you’re right, we’ve got 20 percent of the states in this country now are legalizing or are about to legalize it, and Colorado is a place where you have a long history you can look at,” he told Fox 61.
Watch Lamont’s marijuana remarks, around 15:30 into the video below:
House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz (D) said that “if a flat-out ‘should we legalize?’ bill goes up in the House that it would pass,” but the “problem is when you’re talking about resources and dollars coming in from it, that’s where the disagreement is.” Lawmakers still have to settle issues such as the number of allowable cannabis shops, the tax rate, what the licensing scheme should look like and how to address expungements for prior marijuana convictions.
“The reality is we have marijuana here in the state of Connecticut,” Aresimowicz said. “It’s here and we have no ability to limit the amount of THC, we have no ability to decide what products are available, and obviously we’re not benefiting from it.”
Rep. Steve Stafstrom (D), co-chair of the Judiciary Committee, said “is not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when” the state legalizes cannabis.
“I think the Connecticut public is fairly clear on this issue,” he said. “The polling data from around the state has been fairly uniform that there is an overwhelming majority of state residents that would like to see us legalize.”
Social equity is likely to be a primary focus of discussion around legalization legislation this year. To that end, Rep. Mike D’Agostino (D) has pledged to create a commission designed to ensure that communities most harmed under prohibition stand to benefit from the policy change by being prioritized for licensing and receiving revenue from legal sales, for example.
Jason Ortiz, the Connecticut-based president of the Minority Cannabis Business Association, told Marijuana Moment that he’s “excited to hear Rep. Dagastino will be making equity a priority for this session, because without it no bill would pass.”
“It shows that some of our Connecticut legislators are listening and do understand just how important doing right by communities of color really is,” he said. “Now it’s time for us to have this conversation with the governor so he fully understands the complexity of cannabis legalization, and the economic potential of getting it right.”
Kebra Smith-Bolden, president of the advocacy group CT United for Reform and Equity, told Marijuana Moment, that she “applaud[s] State Representative D’Agostino for recognizing the importance of restorative justice in regard to cannabis legalization for adult use in Connecticut.”
“Having tax revenue from cannabis sales go directly to the communities most affected by destructive and discriminatory drug policies, masked by the term ‘War on Drugs’ is the first step to addressing those wrongs, and affords communities the funds to began to repair the damage that was done,” Smith-Bolden said.
The Northeast is set to be a major player in the reform space this year. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) renewed his call for reform in his State of the State address and included legalization language in a budget proposal to lawmakers this week. Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo (D) included a proposal to legalize though a state-run model in her budget plan. New Hampshire lawmakers will pursue legislation for non-commercial cannabis legalization. New Jersey voters will decide on the issue in November’s election. And Vermont Gov. Phil Scott (R) seems more open to adding a regulated sales component to his state’s noncommercial legal marijuana law.
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.