State Senate readies for debate on legalizing recreational marijuana

HARTFORD – Connecticut’s long-gestating bill to legalize recreational marijuana is teetering on the edge as the legislative deadline looms and several important bills, including the next two-year budget and Gov. Ned Lamont’s highway usage tax on large trucks, will take up much of the General Assembly’s time until midnight on Wednesday.

In the early afternoon on Monday, Sen. President Pro Tempore Martin Looney and Sen. Gary Winfield, both D-New Haven, told reporters that they would finally introduce a legal-cannabis bill that would have a major focus on creating business opportunities in city neighborhoods that were impacted by the decades-long failed war on drugs.

Residents of those areas would be able to draw on a grant program to help them get started. A lottery would be held to determine license eligibility. In the short term, on July 1, people would be allowed to have 1.5 ounces of cannabis in their immediate possession and as much as five ounces locked in their, homes, car trunks or glove compartments.

The bill would allow for home growing for medical patients starting October 1, 2022, when they may have three mature plants and three immature plants. Adult-use homegrown would be allowed starting July 1, 2023.

The sales tax would be the state’s usual 6.35 percent, but host communities could make an extra three percent of sales and there would be a specific additional tax based on THC levels of cannabis products, including flowers, tinctures and edibles. Customers would be limited to buying one ounce of flowers per day. Upon petitions of 10-percent of town or city residents, municipalities would have to hold referendums on whether to allow local sales. Companies, particularly federal contractors, would be allowed to ban use of the drug.

Looney and Winfield planned to bring the complex, 297-page bill to the floor late in the early evening to likely set off a marathon debate.

Under an ambitious time table, adult-use cannabis could be on-sale by May of next year, particularly since the state’s four medical-marijuana growers are poised to expand. Winfield said that the equity portion of the bill, requiring about half of the new businesses to be given to impacted residents, could become a national model,as more states consider full legalization of cannabis. About $50 million in state bonding will be made available for equity applicants.

Some drug-possession convictions, which occurred between January of 2000 and October, 2015 would be automatically erased, while those from other years could be won through petitioning the state courts.

Unlike many states that have direct referendum, such as Massachusetts where voters petitioned the legalization of the drug in 2016, Connecticut’s slower-moving legislature has taken years to get a legal-cannabis bill into shape where a wide range of lawmakers seem to be satisfied, following the state’s medical-marijuana legalization in 2012. One of the goals is to keep Connecticut’s retail prices four percent lower than New York’s, and equal to Massachusetts.

“It took us longer than we would have liked,” Winfield told reporters. “I think at the end of the day we have a process that deals with some of the issues we had that stemmed from the past and makes a good attempt at righting those wrongs. We were really listening to the voices outside of the building that were very concerned about the issue of equity.”

Looney said that one of the problems nationally that have emerged in the debate on legalized cannabis, is the fact that adult-use marijuana remains illegal federally, although in recent years, the U.S. Department of Justice has said it will leave states alone. But because it is illegal nationally, it is hard for potential business owners to secure bank loans, and banking itself is difficult for the primarily cash or debit-card marijuana-related businesses.

Looney stressed the goal to support small entrepreneurs in Connecticut in obtaining licenses to get into the business.

Looney said that House leaders confirmed that if the Senate can pass the bill, the House will take it up also. Hours earlier, Speaker of the House Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, said that while a Republican filibuster is likely to loom in the final two days of the legislative session, he and House Majority Leader Jason Rojas could call for a special session as soon as Thursday to complete action on the bill.

“We do expect it to pass,” Ritter said. Democrats have majorities of 97-54 in the House and 24-12 in the Senate. “It’s not one of these issues that snuck up on anyone.”

Senate Minority Leader Kevin Kelly, R-Stratford, said he wasn’t sure whether any of his 12-member caucus would vote for the legislation. He said that the fact that Massachusetts has been selling retail cannabis for a couple of years, and that New York has approved a retail law, isn’t a reason for Connecticut to follow suit.

“My mom always told me that just because your friends were doing drugs doesn’t mean that you can do them too,” Kelly said outside the Senate chamber. “That wasn’t the argument that my parents taught me and that’s not something that should resonate here in the Capitol.” Twitter: @KenDixonCT


Ken Dixon