Connecticut could be at forefront of recreational pot, social justice mix

New Haven mayor Toni Harp speaks during the opening ceremony of the Connecticut Open at the Connecticut Tennis Center at Yale on Aug. 22, 2016 in New Haven, Conn | Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

by Emilie Munson

To a growing number of Democrats, legalization is not enough.

Cannabis laws have created intertwining criminal justice, poverty and race inequities, many lawmakers say. And in a growing number of blue states, recreational-use legislation is now targeting those problems by supporting minority-owned businesses, expunging criminal records and reinvesting in urban communities.

If Connecticut approves its own marijuana bill this year — still a big if with two and a half weeks until the legislature adjourns — the state will be among the more progressive in the nation in this sense.

Social justice provisions or not, Connecticut could make history: if it acts soon, it may become the first state to create a legal retail market for the drug through its legislature. But advocates in Connecticut will not be satisfied by a simple legalization law, they said.

“It is incumbent on this legislature to ensure that legalization doesn’t just enrich a handful of corporations,” said Lindsay Farrell, state director of Connecticut’s progressive Working Families Party. “Rather legalization must be part of a bigger program to repair the damage done to black and brown communities.”

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Democrats have been listening. As they draft and redraft their proposed marijuana legislation, the bill has moved farther in this direction.

Democrats crafting the bill have given the commission that would oversee the new recreational marijuana market a specific mandate: “promote and encourage full participation in the cannabis industry by persons from communities that have been disproportionately harmed by cannabis prohibition and enforcement.” The bill gives the commission $500,000 a year to do outreach to these communities.

The legislation also would give jobs in the new marijuana industry to people who were arrested or convicted of cannabis sale or possession, have a child or parent who was arrested or convicted of the same, or who live in high-poverty, low-employment neighborhoods in the state. People who meet this criteria — “equity applicants” — will be given the first licenses to cultivate, manufacture and grow marijuana.

Cannabis retailers or growers who are not equity applicants would have comply with a state-approved plan to hire workers from communities disproportionately impacted by marijuana-related crimes or reinvest in those communities.

The state too will be investing: Democrats want to send money from taxing recreational marijuana back to those same impoverished neighborhoods with high employment, most of which will likely fall in cities.

And they want to expunge the criminal records of people arrested for marijuana-related crimes.

“Let’s be honest about who has suffered the most over time at the hands of harsh marijuana laws,” said New Haven Mayor Toni Harp, a former state senator, speaking in favor of legalization. “Statistics show that despite similar rates of marijuana use, African Americans are still arrested at a far higher rate than white suspects for marijuana-related charges. As of 2010, African Americans were 12 percent of the population in Connecticut but accounted for more than 30 percent of marijuana possession arrests.”

Around the country

Ten states and the District of Columbia have already legalized adult recreational cannabis use, all via ballot initiative. A few of these states have also adopted similar social justice cannabis laws to what Connecticut is advancing, most notably California and Massachusetts, said Karmen Hanson, program director of Behavior Health at the National Conference of State Legislatures.

In 2016, California passed a ballot initiative that allowed people with drug convictions to obtain marijuana licenses. It also allocated $10 million a year to pay for job placement services, legal help, and mental health and addiction treatment for residents of communities hit hard by past drug laws. In 2018, another ballot measure allowed the expungement of certain marijuana convictions in California. The state also allows individual cities to add their own regulations to help minority business owners access the cannabis market.

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Massachusetts has a similar “equity applicant” status to Connecticut and requires cannabis businesses owners to reinvest in communities disproportionately harmed by marijuana law enforcement. Businesses are also required to have diversity plans to hire from minority, veterans and disabled groups.

Despite these provisions, Massachusetts has had few equity applicants successfully enter the cannabis market, which some attribute the seed money and technical knowledge needed.

That problem is not unique. Around the country the burgeoning legal cannabis industry is dominated by white investors, critics say.

“The industry is not anywhere near as diverse as either the population as a whole or the population that has been impacted by the War on Drugs,” said Karen O’Keefe, director of State Policies for the national pro-legalization group Marijuana Policy Project. “That needs to change.”

In Colorado, the first state to legalize, black people hold only a handful of the thousands of cannabis retail and cultivation licenses. But Colorado, fellow early adopter Washington, has revised its cannabis laws over time to try to diversify business license applications and add expungement provisions, Hanson said.

Meanwhile, among blue states now attempting to legalize recreational pot through their legislatures, social justice provisions are overwhelmingly part of the picture, said O’Keefe. These include New York, New Jersey, Illinois, Delaware and Maryland.

“They’re all looking at these issues — maybe not the exact same approach to them, but they’re all looking at what’s working and what’s not,” O’Keefe said.

In some more conservative states, like Georgia and Ohio, that allow medical marijuana use — 34 states have legalized this — lawmakers have passed measures to diversify the cannabis industry too, O’Keefe said.

Uncertain passage

Approval of recreational marijuana in Connecticut is not assured – not even close. The legislation was 10 votes shy of passage earlier this month. Since then, Democrats have updated the bill to allow more poor residents – not just those affected by marijuana-related arrests – to get priority status to grow and sell cannabis.

That change upset some Democrats, but its not clear how many – or how they will vote on the final bill – because Democrats have not had another caucus on the topic.

Many lawmakers of both parties worry that legalization will increase drug addictions, cause more drug-impaired driving accidents and put cannabis in the hands of children.

Senate President Pro Tempore Martin Looney, D-New Haven, said legalization may be decided by the legislature in a special session this summer. House Democratic leadership said this week there’s a chance marijuana may get a vote before Sine Die on June 5, although numerous issues like the state budget and tolls still need their attention.; Twitter: @emiliemunson