Connecticut lawmakers took a full day’s worth of public testimony on Friday about Gov. Ned Lamont’s (D) plan to legalize and regulate marijuana for...

Connecticut lawmakers took a full day’s worth of public testimony on Friday about Gov. Ned Lamont’s (D) plan to legalize and regulate marijuana for adults. The legislation has drawn harsh criticism from social equity advocates since its unveiling earlier this month as part of the governor’s budget, and the bill’s supporters said at Friday’s hearing that they’re open to making changes to address those concerns.

“This is not a final bill,” Lamont’s chief of staff, Paul Mounds, told equity advocates during his testimony to the legislature’s Judiciary Committee. “We want to sit at the table. We want you at the table.”

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Before Friday’s official legislative hearing, a group of reform advocates critical of the governor’s proposal held a press conference to bring attention to what they say are shortcomings of the bill’s licensing, equity and criminal justice provisions. Among them, they argue the governor’s plan, SB 888, would give an overwhelming advantage to businesses in the state’s existing medical marijuana system by allowing them early control of the legal adult-use industry. That would likely make it hard for smaller applicants or Black and brown people trying to enter the new market as business owners rather than as employees.

One speaker at the press conference, Rep. Anne Hughes (D), said she would be willing to vote against the governor’s bill if it doesn’t end up including a stronger emphasis on equity.

“If we put equity applicants at the back of the line,” Hughes said, “I don’t think we can ever repair that. I don’t think we can catch up.”

Critics of the governor’s plan have drawn attention to a separate legalization bill, HB 6377, which includes additional equity measures, such as early registration for equity license applicants and funding for low-interest business loans.

Supporters of the governor’s bill struck a conciliatory tone at Friday’s hearing, denying that the two proposals are in conflict. “These bills aren’t competing,” said Jonathan Harris, a senior advisor to the governor. “They’re actually complementary.”

Jason Ortiz, a drug policy advocate and president of the Minority Cannabis Business Association who served as chair of the governor’s cannabis licensing working group last year, has been critical of Lamont’s proposal, arguing that the administration effectively ignored his suggestions for how to build an equitable industry. In a Facebook post on Thursday, he said the governor’s legalization plan “creates a white only market for an indefinite period of time.”

At Friday morning’s press conference, Ortiz said equity advocates would be happy to help strengthen Lamont’s proposal.

“We were available months ago and we’re available now. The governor just needs to pick up his phone and call Reps. [Robyn] Porter and her colleagues,” he told Marijuana Moment after the event, referring to backers of the separate legalization bill, HB 6377.

State Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff (D), meanwhile, has said the cannabis legalization bills need to be “pulled apart and put back together,” according to The Connecticut Examiner, adding that there’s still “a lot of work to be done.”

“We need to be start taking all of these different ideas and putting them together,” House Speaker Matt Ritter (D) told the Examiner, “so we can have an actual bill to rally the votes behind.

For her part, Porter, who chairs the Labor Committee, said during Friday’s hearing that she’s confident that HB 6377’s provisions will be considered in an eventual compromise bill.

As introduced by Lamont in his budget proposal earlier this month, SB 888 would allow adults 21 and older to possess up to 1.5 ounces of cannabis and purchase products from licensed stores, which would be scheduled to open in May 2022.

Homegrow would be forbidden under the plan, and some but not all marijuana-related convictions from before October 2015 would be automatically expunged. Fiscal estimates project the market could make the state more than $33 million in revenue in fiscal year 2023, growing to $97 million by 2026. Beginning in 2024, half of all state excise tax would be earmarked for municipal aid and equity spending.

Ortiz—whose criticisms were acknowledged by Lamont advisor Harris at Friday’s hearing—identified a number of criminal justices areas of the bill he said were “lacking” during his testimony to the panel, noting that SB 888 does not decriminalize home cultivation or expunge an array of cannabis convictions, including for possession of more than for ounces of cannabis.

“At the core of equity is decarceration, getting folks out of prison; decriminalization, making sure we’re not putting more people in prison; and expungement, making sure the records of whatever interaction they have don’t follow them,” he said. “SB 888 acknowledges the need for all of those, but then doesn’t actually do it in policy.”

Friday’s hearing—the first to consider the governor’s legalization proposal—drew extensive written and oral testimony. Among those who submitted statements ahead of the hearing were a number of state officials expressing their support for legalization, which is expected to bring tens of millions of dollars in state revenue.

“S.B. 888 will help create jobs, foster an emerging and growing industry in our state, and help support the state and local tax base—all areas that are critical as our state emerges from the pandemic,” wrote David Lehman, commissioner of the state Department of Economic and Community Development and a senior economic advisor to the governor.

Officials also said the policy change would align Connecticut with other nearby states, ensure limits on advertising and products designed to appeal to children, protect the rights of employers to prohibit cannabis use and support social justice.

“Legalizing cannabis means taking meaningful strides to address our state’s criminalization of cannabis to date and the disproportionate impact this has had on communities of color,” said Marc Pelka, undersecretary for criminal justice policy and planning at the Office of Policy and Management.

Commissioner of Consumer Protection Michelle Seagull and others noted that nearby sources of legal, regulated cannabis are increasingly available to state residents. “Massachusetts, Maine, and Vermont already have some form of a market for adult-use cannabis,” she wrote, “bills were just signed into law by New Jersey’s Governor, and New York and Rhode Island are poised to legalize adult-use this year. We cannot ignore or avoid this fact.”

That was a sentiment echoed by Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection Commissioner James Rovella, who pointed out that surrounding states are enacting legalization and that “cannabis is already among us and law enforcement is dealing with it and expending resources on it.”

Department of Banking Commissioner Jorge L. Perez similarly said the governor’s proposal “recognizes that the trend nationally and in nearby states is to legalize the adult use of recreational cannabis” and that it regulates marijuana in way that “prioritizes public health, public safety, and social justice.”

Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services Commissioner Miriam Delphin-Rittmon said she appreciates that the bill “protects public health by providing adult access to safe products and preventing advertising and retail locations that would appeal to children.”

Others who submitted testimony in support include Department of Revenue Services Commissioner Mark D. Boughton, Department of Labor Commissioner Kurt Westby and Department of Motor Vehicles Commissioner Sibongile Magubane.

Some in law enforcement and health care submitted testimony against the legalization plan.

“The rush towards legalization of recreational marijuana ignores how profit-driven corporations hooked generations of Americans on cigarettes and opioids, killing millions and straining public resources,” said the Connecticut State Medical Society. “Connecticut has an obligation to protect the health and welfare of its citizens and rushing to legalize a potentially unsafe drug abdicates this responsibility.”

The state Police Chiefs Association, meanwhile, said it opposes the bill primarily because no qualified roadside test exists to detect cannabis-impaired driving. “While the presence of a police officer trained in Advanced Roadside Impairment Driving Enforcement (ARIDE) or the presence of a Drug Recognition Expert (DRE) may potentially assist in the evaluation of a motorist,” the group said, “there is presently no legal device in which to test such operators. The DRE evaluation mentioned in this [bill] is a process which occurs after the arrest is made.”

The governor’s own written testimony ahead of Friday’s hearing underscored the drug war’s failure. “The war on cannabis did little to protect public health and safety, and instead caused significant injustices for many residents, especially people in black and brown communities,” Lamont wrote.

“One thing on which most of us agree is that social equity must be included in any adult-use market we create. While there is significant consensus around that goal, there are many different approaches as to how to best accomplish it,” he added. “This hearing is the continuation of this critical conversation.”

Despite disagreement over policy details, many expect legalization to happen Connecticut’s near future. Ritter, the speaker, said in November that legalization in the state is “inevitable.” He added later that month that “I think it’s got a 50–50 chance of passing [in 2021], and I think you should have a vote regardless.”

Should this year’s effort fail, Ritter said he will move to put a constitutional question on the state’s 2022 ballot that would leave the matter to voters. A poll released last year found that nearly two-thirds of voters (63.4 percent) either “strongly” or “somewhat” supported recreational legalization.

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Photo courtesy of Rick Proctor

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