Recreational marijuana moved closer to reality Tuesday as Democrats in the Judiciary Committee sent the governor’s bill to create a recreational cannabis market to the full General Assembly, even though the proposal, by their own admission, is still half baked.
“I will admit to members of this committee at the outset that this bill very much remains a work in progress,” said Rep. Steven Stafstrom, D-Bridgeport, co-chair of the committee.
The 200-plus page bill deals with finance, regulatory and licensing issues, Stafstrom said, but the primary question under the jurisdiction of the judiciary committee Tuesday was whether to legalize recreational cannabis in Connecticut.
Three Democrats – Sens. Saud Anwar, D-South Windsor, and Alex Kasser, D-Greenwich, and Rep. Daniel Fox, D-Stamford – joined the Republican members of the committee in voting against the bill.
The vote was 22 in favor, 16 against the proposal, which would legalize marijuana for adult use, tax it, and decriminalize it under certain circumstances.
“This conversation is far, far from over,” said Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven. “I hope that we continue this conversation by voting the bill out today so that the interests of all those involved are represented in the conversation.”
Republicans’ criticism of the bill dominated much of the hour-long conversation that took place before the vote, with several citing marijuana’s status as a controlled federally as the reason for their no votes.
“Out of respect for the oath that I took as a state representative to uphold the federal and state constitutions, I cannot find myself in support of this,” said Rep. Craig Fishbein, R-Wallingford, ranking member of the committee.
Fishbein reiterated comments he made at an earlier public hearing on the bill that no one from the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services “was willing to testify that this product is not of concern to them.”
“I would’ve thought that those individuals that our state taxpayers pay to make those determinations, make those recommendations, to advise us on those issues, if they felt comfortable with this would actually come to us,” he said.
Several Republicans, including Rep. Donna Veach, R-Berlin, and Sen. Dan Champagne, R-Vernon, said they are worried about the impact on children and what message legalizing cannabis could send to them about drug use.
Kasser, in an emailed statement, cited similar concerns to Republicans about the health impact on young people.
“In my view no gain in tax revenue is worth the “cost” of harming young adults, whose brains are still developing until the age of 25 and who are more susceptible to psychotic reactions,” she said. “I’m also deeply concerned about the impact on public safety – people driving under the influence of cannabis when there is no reliable technology to screen for this.”
Kasser said she does not think the bill does enough to restrict the amount of THC in marijuana products to safe levels and disclose that on all packaging – a point also made by Veach.
Equity issues dominated the testimony during the public hearing on the bill.
The bill the judiciary committee voted on Tuesday included several revisions based on that testimony, Stafstrom said, including:
Adding legislative appointments to the social equity council, which will look at ways to make sure potential societal equitable applicants have access to get licenses and individuals from affected communities can get jobs in the industry.
From July 1, 2021 through Jan 1, 2024, only existing medical marijuana establishments in Connecticut and social equity applicants would be able to open recreational cannabis establishments. These establishments would be required have a social equity plan and agree to labor peace and prevailing wage provisions.
Creating an accelerated program to provide technical support, mentoring, networking and apprenticeship opportunities for social equity applicants, which are broadly defined as those who’ve been disparately impacted by the criminal enforcement of marijuana laws.
Creating a workforce pipeline program to help individuals from impacted communities get jobs in the industry.
Allow patients in Connecticut’s medical marijuana program to home-grow up to six plants, starting in May 2022.
Enables municipalities to decide if they want to allow recreational cannabis establishments within their borders
The bill, in its current form, calls for the revenue generated from the sale of recreational marijuana to be spent as such: 55% on social equity efforts, which Stafstrom said still need to be more clearly defined, 15% on grants for prevention and recovery services and 30% to the general fund to cover administrative costs.
Rep. Kimberly Fiorello, R-Greenwich, took issue with the equity provisions in the bill, saying she found the language to be problematic and outside the role of government.
“If we want to legalize marijuana, then legalize marijuana, but this aspiration is misguided. It’s something that we can speak about. I don’t know how you legislate equality, equity and expect the laws do all this,” Fiorello said.
Stafstrom strongly disagreed saying it “absolutely is the role of government to try to remedy past discrimination.”
“That is one of the reasons I stand firmly in support of the effort to end prohibition of cannabis, to right some of those historical wrongs,” he said, referring to the disparate impact of the war of drugs on communities of color.
Jason Ortiz, president of the Minority Business Cannabis Association, said in a phone interview Tuesday that “it’s clear that an intent was made to address the concerns that were spoken at the first public hearing.”
Ortiz said he was pleased to see provisions in the bill that would set aside 40% of all licenses for cannabis establishments to social equity applicants and would include residents of tribal land in the list of those who qualify as social equity applicants.
He hopes future revisions of the bill will address those currently incarcerated on criminal marijuana charges, including shortening their sentences. Though, the fastest approach, he said would be for the governor to issue large scale pardons as Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker did on the night before the state legalizing recreational marijuana. Ortiz also said that the home-growing provision should apply to everyone, not just medical marijuana patients.