News 2021

Legal Cannabis Comes to Connecticut

“The war on cannabis, which was at its core a war on people in Black and Brown communities, not only caused injustices and increased disparities in our state, it did little to protect public health and safety.”

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Connecticut is on the verge of becoming the 19th state to legalize marijuana, with the bill now on its way to the governor’s desk. 

S.B. 1201 would legalize, tax, and regulate cannabis for adults 21 and over. The effort passed the Senate by 16-11 and House of Representatives by 76-62 votes. Governor Ned Lamont is expected to sign the bill, after previously claiming that it didn’t go far enough to address the wrongs of the war on drugs. The opposing side argues that Lamont’s preferred language doesn’t clearly cement the victims of the drug war as the actual participants in the equity program. 

“It’s fitting that the bill legalizing the adult use of cannabis and addressing the injustices caused by the war of drugs received final passage today, on the 50-year anniversary of President Nixon declaring the war.” Governor Lamont said yesterday in a statement after the bill cleared its final hurdles on the way to his desk. “The war on cannabis, which was at its core a war on people in Black and Brown communities, not only caused injustices and increased disparities in our state, it did little to protect public health and safety. That’s why I introduced a bill and worked hard with our partners in the legislature and other stakeholders to create a comprehensive framework for a securely regulated market that prioritizes public health, public safety, social justice, and equity. It will help eliminate the dangerous unregulated market and support a new, growing sector of our economy which will create jobs.”

Governor Lamont went on to point out that opening Connecticut’s market makes sense given the fact that the state is surrounded by legal cannabis. While the legalization debate has stalled to the east in Rhode Island, Massachusetts is already absorbing Connecticut’s would-be tax revenue into its own adult-use market, and Albany certainly looks like it will beat Hartford to the finish line in getting dispensary doors open. 

“The states surrounding us already, or soon will, have legal adult-use markets. By allowing adults to possess cannabis, regulating its sale and content, training police officers in the latest techniques of detecting and preventing impaired driving, and expunging the criminal records of people with certain cannabis crimes, we’re not only effectively modernizing our laws and addressing inequities, we’re keeping Connecticut economically competitive with our neighboring states.” 

The D.C.-based Marijuana Policy Project has played a crucial role in the legalization process in many states and now adds Connecticut to its list of success stories. The MPP spoke to the ways in which social equity was embedded in the plan. S.B. 1201 includes expungement of lower-level cannabis records and dedicates the bulk of excise tax revenues to a Social Equity and Innovation Fund, which will be used to promote a diverse cannabis industry and reinvest in hard-hit communities. Half of new cannabis business licenses will be issued to social equity applicants, who can receive technical assistance, start-up funding, assistance from an accelerator program, and workforce training.

But the center of much of the debate in the week prior to the victory was who actually would qualify for equity programs. Many argued that the language Lamont favored made things a lot murkier around delineating a clear line of ownership from the communities impacted by the war on drugs to the state’s forthcoming legal market. One of the big problems with equity rollouts over the years has been investors using those who qualify for the advantages of the programs as figureheads to front their businesses. Fear of deep-pocketed speculators taking advantage of the situation is still there, but if you block them out, do you at the same time inadvertently prevent people who were impacted by enforcement from taking part?

The devil’s advocate argument in Lamont’s favor is that not everyone impacted personally by the drug war ended up in handcuffs. Some argue that just the PTSD of living in overly policed communities should qualify a person for social equity programs. Even having to listen to the sirens go by your window more frequently than others while you were trying to study could be considered another challenge put in front of people by the war on drugs.  

But apart from the ownership debate in equity, as critical as those finer points may be, advocates had plenty of positive things to say about the rest of the bill. 

“So, in the beginning of the campaign, we had seven demands that we outlined, which was the difference between HB 6377 and the Governor’s bill, including home grow, priority licenses for equity, including our native tribes, protection for students, and we got all seven of them,” said Jason Ortiz, a longtime Connecticut cannabis advocate who also helped found the Minority Cannabis Business Association. “And so I’m pretty happy, especially around the home grow for everyone. That was one that was definitely up for debate and wasn’t in a lot of the original bills but did make it in the end.”

But Ortiz admitted that it wasn’t quite perfect when speaking to the social equity debate. 

“The one thing that we didn’t get that we did fight for was the thing that caused the governor to almost veto, it was the criminal history as a qualifier for the equity programs,” Ortiz says. The argument in favor of using criminal history as a main qualifier in equity programs is that it is the most surefire way to make sure the program’s resources are being dedicated to people who directly had their lives impacted by enforcement. Most advocates would group the children who lost their parents to drug-related incarceration into this group of people who qualify based on history. “So aside from that,” Ortiz says, “even though I truly believe that should be a foundation of any equity program, we were able to get $50 million in state bonding to jumpstart the equity programs, which I don’t think any other state has done thus far.”

Ortiz was quick to focus on the positives, in closing, commenting on components of the law where he felt Connecticut was ahead of the pack. “There’s just a tremendous amount of different types of protections for families and for students and for housing and for employment, that just aren’t in most bills.”

Advocates in the nation’s capital shared the joy of their peers in Hartford. 

“Connecticut is on the cusp of becoming the latest state to legalize cannabis. This year has shown us that state legislatures are capable of rising to the challenge to end cannabis prohibition. A supermajority of Americans have made it clear that they favor a system of legalization and regulation rather than the status quo. This victory will add to the momentum towards cannabis policy reform in other states and at the federal level,” says Karen O’Keefe, director of state policies for the Marijuana Policy Project.

NORML joined MPP in applauding the effort and focusing on the positives. 

“Connecticut is just the latest domino to fall as states begin to repeal their failed prohibition of marijuana and replace it with a sensible system of legalization and regulation. Never before has the momentum for legalization looked as strong as it does in 2021, with four state legislatures already approving bills to ensure state law reflects the overwhelming will of their state residents in just a few short months,” says Erik Altieri, NORML’s executive director. “Federal lawmakers need to stop dragging their feet and get the message: it is time to take swift action to end our federal prohibition and allow states to legalize marijuana as they see fit.”   

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