Inside the Fight for Social Equity in Connecticut
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Inside the Fight for Social Equity in Connecticut

After years of failed attempts, Connecticut has finally passed legalization. But challenges remain – especially for the creation of an equitable adult-use industry.

June 28, 2021

With a stroke of his pen last week, Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont finally brought to fruition a goal that activists have been chasing for years: legalizing cannabis statewide. The newly signed bill allows adults to carry up to an ounce and a half and store up to five ounces at home or in their car’s trunk or glove box. 

Advocates for cannabis equity are satisfied with the final legislation, but the road to get there was a bumpy one. And while the passing of legalization in Connecticut is a significant victory, there’s still a long way to go toward ensuring the state creates a fair industry. 

Industry lobbyists closely involved in the state’s legislative process talked to Cannabis Business Times and Cannabis Dispensary about the bill’s winding path to becoming law and the debate between the legislature and Lamont over the definition of equity.

How We Got Here

Despite Connecticut passing decriminalization in 2011 and establishing a medical program in 2012, efforts to pass adult-use legalization had stalled in recent years. In 2018, a legalization bill passed a House committee vote but failed to advance further. The next year saw another legalization bill and even more debate, but lawmakers ultimately failed to drum up enough votes – despite the support of Lamont, then the newly seated governor.

In 2020, Lamont proposed a legalization framework that was gaining legislative support until the coronavirus pandemic forced the session to end early. This year, with tri-state neighbor New York passing legalization in March and the effects of COVID-19 lessened by vaccine rollouts, cannabis advocates were confident they’d finally make it across the finish line.

It wouldn’t be easy. After running out of time in the regular session because of a lack of Republican support in the House, lawmakers had to return for a special session on June 16. But a late amendment added by the Senate during the special session put the entire effort at risk after Lamont threatened a veto over the prioritization of cannabis licenses, bringing up a debate on who should be prioritized in the adult-use market.

Who should be considered an equity applicant?

According to Jason Ortiz, Executive Director of Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) and longtime Connecticut cannabis advocate, the veto threat came about after a disagreement over qualifications for equity licenses. “We fought to include those who had criminal histories and the governor refused to allow them into the program. He really didn't understand the point of equity programs,” said Ortiz in an email to Cannabis Business Times and Cannabis Dispensary. “It got particularly twisted when he tried to say inclusion of those with criminal histories would benefit the wealthy.”

Lamont’s office put out a statement opposing the amendment, which would have prioritized applicants convicted for any cannabis crime: “This last-minute amendment creates equity in name only by allowing these individuals expedited opportunity to obtain access to the marketplace.” The statement went further, claiming the new amendment would allow "just about anyone with a history of cannabis crimes'' to be prioritized as an applicant, even if they came from a background of wealth.

Despite the governor’s disapproval, prioritizing industry access for those with cannabis convictions is a standard practice. Illinois, Michigan, New York, and California are just a few of the states that include a cannabis arrest as part of the criteria to qualify as an equity applicant. 

After some debate and pushback from equity advocates, the amendment was ultimately shelved. The updated legalization bill passed both chambers of the legislature and was signed into law. Adult-use dispensary sales aren’t projected to begin until late 2022 at earliest, but the new possession limits will go into effect July 1.

What happens next for cannabis equity in Connecticut?

No one knows for sure. Despite Lamont reiterating the importance of social justice measures in the upcoming industry, details are still scarce on exactly how that will happen. We do know that 50% of all licenses will be set aside for social equity applicants, who will also be eligible for special grants and training. Under the law, a new 15-person Social Equity Council will create guidelines on how those harmed by cannabis prohibition should be prioritized in the state’s legal industry.

And though activists viewed the removal of the special session amendment as a setback, they were overall happy with the end result. 

“We had a list of seven key components we wanted,” said Ortiz. “Home grow for all, equity license set-asides, inclusion of tribal nations, protections for students and parents, labor peace agreements, funds dedicated for community investment, jobs programs for the formerly incarcerated. We got all seven. So, on that front, it’s a complete success.”

Whatever comes next, it’s likely that equity advocates will be heavily involved—as they were in the runup to legalization. 

“Advocates for equity—not even just cannabis advocates, but larger organizations like the NAACP in Connecticut—they were very involved in standing up for what we demanded in terms of legalization, so it had to be equitable,” said Shanita Penny, an advisor to the Coalition for Cannabis Policy, Education and Regulation (CPEAR) and member of its in-house Center of Excellence think tank. “We at no point were willing to accept legalization in any way—it had to address and repair the damage from the War on Drugs.”

Connecticut, a state of roughly 3.6 million people with a population almost 80% Caucasian, will need to face the dual challenge of rapidly scaling its industry while prioritizing those harmed by prohibition. Currently, its medical program supports only four licensed cannabis growers. Nevada, a state with about 500,000 fewer residents, has over 130 licensed cultivators in its adult-use industry. 

For now, attention turns to the formation of the new social equity council and the state’s Department of Consumer Protection, which will be responsible for issuing licenses.

“We have to be adamant that the people appointed to the social equity commission are knowledgeable and also focused on empowering the communities most impacted,” said Ortiz. “We won a battle, but the war is far from over.”