As has been the case for years, the debate over legalizing recreational marijuana essentially boils down to two sides: “It’s an idea whose time has come” vs. “Why do you think they call it ‘dope?’”
State legislators have been wrestling with the idea of making the commercial sale of weed legal since at least 2011, when Gov. Dannel Malloy signed into law a measure reducing the penalty for possession of a half ounce of marijuana from a fine of up to $1,000 and a year in jail to a $150 fine for a first offense and a $200 to 250 fine for subsequent offenses.
“Let me make it clear — we are not legalizing the use of marijuana,” Malloy said at the time. Instead, he said, “we are recognizing that the punishment should fit the crime.”
The following year Malloy signed legislation allowing people with certain debilitating diseases to legally use marijuana for medical reasons, which again opened the floor for debate as to whether all pot could soon be legalized. Legislation to do just that has been introduced in several sessions since, including last year and this year.
On April 5, the state’s Appropriations Committee voted 27-24 in favor of a bill that would legalize the sale and use of recreational marijuana. The legislation would require the state to create a plan to legalize and regulate marijuana, as well as create programs for substance abuse treatment, prevention, education and awareness.
Also taking up the issue are the Judiciary and the Finance, Revenue and Bonding committees.
Any plan that would legalize recreational marijuana must be completed by Oct. 1 for consideration by the General Assembly. Should that occur, it will be the first time Connecticut’s legislature has voted on whether or not to legalize recreational cannabis.
Today, nine states along with the District of Columbia have legalized recreational marijuana: Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont, Washington and — most importantly to Connecticut — Massachusetts.
The Bay State will allow retail sales of pot to begin on July 1. Nevertheless, granting licenses to both existing medical marijuana dispensaries looking to broaden their business — of which there are 12 — and new outlets is a time-consuming process, and cultivation is expected to lag behind demand in Massachusetts by several months.
One report said the state could experience shortages for up to two years. Still, the fact that Connecticut — which as of now has nine medical marijuana dispensaries, including Compassionate Care Center of Connecticut in Bethel — is already trailing its neighbor to the north and east is reason enough to get on board, say proponents.
“Obviously marijuana is already on our streets and being sold on the black market,” said state Rep. Steve Stafstrom, a Democrat representing Bridgeport and self-described longtime proponent of legalization. “And with what’s happening in Massachusetts, we’re going to see people pouring over the border. It creates a structure where the Massachusetts government is basically dictating the regulatory environment and Connecticut is going to be forced to react to that.”
Stafstrom noted that Vermont, Rhode Island, Maine and New Jersey are all in various stages of discussion about legalization, as well. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has, like Malloy, voiced his opposition in the past, but both have more recently indicated willingness to take another look at the issue.
“It’s very clear to me that Connecticut will soon be surrounded by states that allow the recreational sale of marijuana,” Stafstrom said. “One of the knocks on Connecticut is that we’ve been far too slow to adapt to changing social norms.”
State Sen. Carlo Leone, a Democrat who represents Stamford and Darien, also invoked the Massachusetts argument during a March 20 hearing on legalization before the General Law Committee, which he co-chairs. Although the committee rejected the measure by a bipartisan vote of 11-6, Leone said, “If we don’t confront it here and now, we will be confronting it down the road.”
Republican state Sen. Toni Boucher of Wilton has long been an opponent of legalizing marijuana under any circumstances, including for medical use. Upon the passage of the 2011 decriminalization law, she said: “I feel that in my heart of hearts, this legislation is the wrong direction for our state. While I am deeply disappointed by the passage of this bill, I will continue to fight the legalization of this harmful drug in our state.”
Although Boucher was not available for comment for this article, her staff indicated that her opposition remains unchanged.
Another Republican — Shelton Mayor Mark Lauretti, running for governor this year — told the Business Journal, “I am not in favor. The jury is still out.”
Lauretti said that in the midst of the opioid crisis, “adding another substance to the equation doesn’t make sense.” He further cited the lack of a standard sobriety test for overuse of marijuana, and a rise in motor vehicle accidents in states that have legalized weed, as reasons to oppose legalization.
An April 2 article in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine reported that states allowing the dispensation of medical cannabis had 2.21 million fewer daily doses of opioids prescribed per year under Medicare Part D, compared with those states without medical marijuana laws.
On the other hand, the Denver Post reported last year that government data showed the number of drivers involved in fatal crashes in Colorado, which legalized marijuana in 2012, has risen significantly each year since 2013, more than doubling in that time.
Nevertheless, a poll conducted last year by Sacred Heart University found that 71 percent of Connecticut residents supported legalization and taxing marijuana – up from a 2015 SHU poll that put approval at 63 percent.
Such data is cited by the Marijuana Policy Project — a D.C.-based group that seeks to change federal law to allow states to determine their own marijuana policies and to regulate marijuana like alcohol in all 50 states, D.C., and the country’s five territories — as proof that the time has come for Connecticut to get on board.
“The more states who legalize within the region, the less revenue that Connecticut will receive,” Becky Dansky, legislative counsel, State Policies Dept. at the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), said.
Besides, she added, “California legalized medical marijuana 23 years ago, and Colorado was the first to legalize it for recreational use in 2012. And oh look — society hasn’t collapsed.”
The MPP also makes the argument that legalizing marijuana can have a significant positive financial impact. Its research indicates that during the first year of legalization alone, Connecticut can anticipate $71 million in “early sales” tax revenue from dispensaries and package liquor stores, assuming sales are taxed at a 25 percent retail excise rate and that dispensaries meet 30 percent of Connecticut residents’ demand.
Once producers and retailers can meet total demand, the MPP said, “Connecticut can expect its excise and sales tax revenue from marijuana sales to Connecticut residents to total $166 million per year. The state can also anticipate significant additional tax revenue — quite possibly matching or exceeding in-state sales — from tourists and visitors until New York and other neighboring states have regulated sales.”
Dansky went on to dismiss complaints about marijuana being a gateway to harder drug use, that it can be addictive and other “salacious remarks.”
“There’s been tremendous progress made in addressing those issues,” she said. “The science outweighs the hearsay.”
Even in the face of the projected economic windfall — something Connecticut could surely use — Lauretti said he remains steadfast in his opposition. “I’m not so sure a financial gain at the cost of social pain is worth it at this point,” he said.
Stafstrom, who emphasized the economic potential is not one of his main concerns, said that, even with the Appropriations Committee approval, he doubted legalization would pass this year due to the short legislative session, scheduled to end on May 9.
“Being such a large piece of legislation makes it harder to get through,” he said. “But there certainly is public support for it, and it’s not a partisan issue — there are both Republicans and Democrats who have been outspoken advocates for legalization.”
Even so, the fact that 2018 is an election year still weighs against legalization this year, Stafstrom said — an opinion with which the MPP’s Dansky agreed. However, Stafstrom added, “Connecticut is going to legalize — either during this session or the next.”