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Marijuana Legalization Will Advance In Connecticut This Year, Top Lawmakers Say

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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.

Missouri Activists Take Steps To Put Marijuana Legalization Initiative On November Ballot

Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.

Kyle Jaeger is Marijuana Moment's Los Angeles-based associate editor. His work has also appeared in High Times, VICE and attn.

Politics

Lindsey Graham Challenger Jaime Harrison Backs Legalizing Marijuana

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The Democrat mounting a well-funded bid to oust Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-SC) says he supports legalizing marijuana.

“I think we should legalize, regulate and tax marijuana like we do alcohol and tobacco,” Jaime Harrison argued this week. “There is simply no medical reason to lock people up over this issue. In essence, this is about common sense.”

The former South Carolina Democratic Party chairman said that the issue is also a matter of criminal justice reform.

“We know that marijuana arrests, including those for simple possession, account for a large number of drug arrests. The racial disparities in marijuana enforcement—black men and white men smoke marijuana the same rates, but black men are much more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession—is just unacceptable,” he said in an interview with CNBC. “Across the country, we are finding that states are legalizing marijuana and medical marijuana, and it’s just time for South Carolina to lead on this issue.”

Federal campaign finance disclosures filed on Wednesday show that Harrison, who also served as an aide to Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-SC) and a lobbyist with the Podesta Group, outraised Graham for the second quarter in a row.

The state Democratic party, on Harrison’s last day in office as chair in 2017, approved a resolution endorsing a pending medical cannabis bill in the South Carolina legislature.

“Caregivers and patients are searching for treatment options for unmet medical needs, particularly for epilepsy, Alzheimer’s disease, cancers, and the effects of chemotherapy,” the measure said. “The cannabis plant in various forms including oils, creams, drops and liquids has shown some promise in treating these medical conditions.”

A South Carolina Senate committee advanced a medical marijuana bill last year but it never ended up advancing to a floor vote.

In 2018, the state’s Democratic primary voters approved an advisory medical cannabis ballot question by an 82 percent to 18 percent margin.

Graham, for his part, opposes marijuana legalization and hasn’t brought any pending cannabis legislation up for hearings or votes in his panel, which handles criminal justice issues.

That said, he has cosponsored a handful of reform bills in past years. For example, in 2016 he signed onto legislation to protect medical marijuana states from federal interference and reschedule cannabis, and in 2017 he cosponsored a bill to remove CBD from the list of federally banned substances.

He has a mixed record when it comes to votes on cannabis amendments.

In 2015, Graham voted against an Appropriations Committee amendment that would have allowed the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to recommend medical cannabis to patients; but the next year he reversed himself and supported a similar measure. Also in 2016, he backed an amendment to prevent the Department of Justice from spending money to interfere with state medical cannabis laws.

Shortly after it was announced he would be taking over the Judiciary panel’s gavel, Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) joked that he would be sending marijuana-infused brownies to congratulate Graham, a quip that the incoming chairman seemed to appreciate.

While South Carolina typically isn’t seen as a state where Democrats are likely to pick up a U.S. Senate seat, this year’s contest between Harrison and Graham is attracting attention from national political observers due to the outsized funding haul the challenger has been able to bring in so far.

Illinois Collects $52 Million In Marijuana Tax Revenue In First Six Months Of Legal Sales

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GOP Congressman Withdraws Amendment To Block D.C. Psychedelics Decriminalization

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A GOP congressman filed an amendment to a spending bill on Wednesday, seeking to undermine a local Washington, D.C. ballot initiative to deprioritize enforcement of laws against a broad class of psychedelics.

But while Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD) made the case that his proposed measure represented a reasonable compromise—making it so only psilocybin mushrooms would be low police priorities and only if a doctor recommended them for medical reasons—he ultimately withdrew the amendment rather than force a vote.

“This amendment deals with Initiative 81…which would make the use of hallucinogenic drugs a low priority for enforcement in the District of Columbia,” Harris said in his opening remarks before the House Appropriations Committee.

The congressman added that he’s particularly concerned about the scope of the ballot measure, acknowledging that “there is limited data that psilocybin may be useful in some circumstances” but asserting that the same can’t be said of the other entheogenic substances such as mescaline that would be covered under the activist-driven initiative.

Watch the debate over Harris’s D.C. psychedelics amendment below: 

It should be noted that while activists behind the initiative submitted their signatures last week and believe they have more than enough to qualify for the November ballot in the nation’s capital, the Board of Elections has yet to certify them. Harris acknowledged that but said “I suspect it might be [qualified for the ballot] by the time” the spending bill goes to a bicameral House and Senate conference committee that will finalize the Fiscal Year 2021 Financial Services and General Government bill for delivery to the president’s desk later this year.

It’s not clear if he was signaling that he planned to reintroduce his amendment, which also stipulates that driving under the influence of psychedelics would be prosecutable, on the House floor or if he plans to work to get a senator to tack it onto that chamber’s version of the legislation, which deals with funding for D.C.

“I think the District of Columbia is different from other cities because we have people coming in from all over the country—and we certainly, I would hope, don’t want to be known as the drug capital of the world,” he said.

There was some debate on the measure by the panel. House Appropriations Financial Services and General Government Subcommittee Chairman Mike Quigley (D-IL) and Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN) voiced opposition while the subcommittee ranking member, Rep. Tom Graves (R-GA), and Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-AL) spoke in favor of the proposal.

“If the district residents want to make mushrooms a lower priority and focus limited law enforcement resources on other issues, that is their prerogative,” Quigley said. “Congress has allowed jurisdictions in California and Colorado to exercise their sovereign right to set policy on mushrooms, the District of Columbia too should be allowed to use their local funds to support their local needs and their priorities.”

Graves argued that “we all can agree that policies that increase the availability of psychedelic drugs in our nation’s capital, that’s dangerous.”

“As the nation’s capital, the District of Columbia, it should be a place where Americans come to see their government at work, for history, maybe go to a Braves-Nats game—it shouldn’t be a destination for illegal drugs,” he said.

McCollum said the amendment serves as another example of Congress attempting to impose excess regulations on D.C. and argued in favor of statehood for the district.

“Now we’re not even allowing the District of Columbia to move forward and decide whether or not this is a good idea,” she said. “I oppose the amendment.”

Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) celebrated the amendment’s withdrawal with a taunt on Twitter, saying, “Regular #homerule offender @RepAndyHarrisMD tried to bar DC from using its own funds to enact a proposed ballot initiative on entheogenic plants + fungi or any similar law, but then withdrew it before the committee could defeat it.”

That prompted Harris to reply that the “process of educating Congress about how dangerous this initiative is has begun. DC has enough of a drug abuse problem without becoming the drug capital of the country.”

Harris’s office didn’t respond to Marijuana Moment’s request for comment about whether he withdrew the amendment because he sensed he didn’t have the votes to pass it in committee.

In his closing remarks at the markup, the congressman said that his measure “is more than just mushrooms. That’s my whole point.”

“Mushrooms is psilocybin—that has a medical use. This includes mescaline, peyote, three other substances [that] have no medical use at all,” he said.

Melissa Lavasani, who proposed the D.C. ballot measure and is part of the Decriminalize Nature D.C. group working to pass it, said in a press release that “our campaign is about helping D.C. residents by enacting common sense reforms to police priorities that ensure that those using healing plant and fungi medicines are not law enforcement targets.”

This isn’t Harris’s first go at pushing for legislation that leverages Congress’s control over the D.C. budget to interfere in local drug policy issues.

Harris has been a consistent opponent of cannabis reform, repeatedly backing a long-standing congressional rider that bars D.C. from using its tax dollars to implement a legal marijuana marketplace. Last year, however, it was not included in the annual spending bill as introduced by House Democratic leaders and the congressmen didn’t attempt to introduce an amendment to reinsert it. It was included in the Senate version and was included in the final enacted bill following conference committee negotiations, however.

The Drug Policy Alliance sent a letter to committee leadership in advance of Wednesday’s hearing, urging them to oppose any attempts to interfere in D.C.’s ability to vote on the psychedelics reform initiative.

Colorado Marijuana Regulators Propose ‘Franchise’ Business Model For Equity Applicants

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Colorado Marijuana Regulators Propose ‘Franchise’ Business Model For Equity Applicants

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Colorado marijuana regulators are looking for feedback on a proposal to create a franchise cannabis business model to promote equitable participation in the industry by people from communities harmed by the war on drugs.

When legislators initially approved a bill to create an accelerator program for marijuana businesses, it was only designed to give eligible entrepreneurs an opportunity to share a cannabis facility with an existing company. But following stakeholder meetings, regulators laid out a proposal to let those entrepreneurs functionally serve as franchises of current larger marijuana businesses, operating out of separate facilities but sharing branding, advertising and intellectual property under certain conditions.

“The Division contemplates certain components of this alternative ‘separate premises’ model will be similar to a franchisor-franchisee business relationship,” the state’s Marijuana Enforcement Division said in a notice last month.

In order to participate under the new model, the division said it would require a series of disclosures, including initial investments from both parties, terms of any financial arrangements and obligations for the licensee such as non-compete requirements.

Additional requirements could still be developed. For example, the department is considering whether franchisees should be offered reduced or waived rent to use facilities owned by existing businesses that agree to be “endorsement holders.” Regulators are also contemplating limitations for the amount of money a franchise can charge an accelerator licensee as a fee for use of their facilities, as well as liability rules.

“Available incentives for accelerator-endorsed licensees to support the ‘separate premises’ model may also include fee reductions resulting from increased financial assistance and no-cost rent arrangements, and reduced accelerator-endorsed licensee liability,” the division said.

Beyond potentially collecting fees from licensees, the benefit of becoming an endorsement holder under this separate premises model seems to be that they get to indirectly expand their business and exposure while supporting entrepreneurs who might not have the immediate resources to break into the industry.

That said, some advocates are weary of the proposed based on past experience.

“While accelerator programs sound good on paper, they so often create terrible long term power dynamics for smaller businesses that we can not endorse this approach,” Jason Ortiz, president of the Minority Cannabis Business Association, told Marijuana Moment.

“Any relationship that puts a small business owner at the whim of a larger conglomerate makes us concerned that the power dynamic there does not favor the smaller business, who will now have their operation tied to the success of the larger entity,” he said. “We instead encourage any business to invest in grant based programs that allow for smaller businesses to operate on their own premises and to run their business how they see fit.”

At the same time, Morgan Fox, media relations director for the National Cannabis Industry Association, told Marijuana Moment that the proposal “looks like it could create a lot of opportunities for people to get into the industry without having large amounts of capital and could generally lower the barriers of entry significantly.”

“Judging from the comments in the feedback solicitation, it appears that the possibility of predatory or unfair franchise relationships is at the front of the Marijuana Enforcement Division’s priorities and it intends to make it very difficult for endorsement licensees to exploit accelerator licensees,” he said. “However, we’ve learned from the shortcomings and abuses in other equity programs around the country that it is important to continually monitor and assess these programs to ensure their effectiveness.”

Stakeholders can fill out an online form to submit input on the proposal. A hearing to finalize the rulemaking is tentatively set for July 30.

At the same time, the division is also working on the implementation of a bill that defines who qualifies as a social equity cannabis business applicant for the accelerator program. Gov. Jared Polis (D) signed that legislation, which also gives him authority to streamline pardons for prior marijuana convictions, last month.

The division is scheduled to hold a separate hearing on implementing the new bill on July 28.

Illinois Collects $52 Million In Marijuana Tax Revenue In First Six Months Of Legal Sales

Photo courtesy of Kimberly Lawson.

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