Connecticut Tries Again to Legalize Adult-Use Cannabis: Legalization Watch

Gov. Ned Lamont has renewed his push for legalization this year, but his proposal will likely require more work before it has the support it needs to pass both chambers.

Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont has renewed his push for cannabis legalization this year, and while advocates say the concept of legalization has support in the legislature, Lamont’s proposed bill will likely require more work on the granular details before it has the support it needs to pass both chambers.

Lamont called for legalization during last year’s legislative session, as well, and although lawmakers worked on three separate bills to legalize and regulate adult-use cannabis, the session ended without any of the legislation advancing to the governor’s desk.

Lamont announced this year’s renewed push for legalization during his State of the State address in February. He then worked alongside the chairmen of key legislative committees to draft comprehensive legislation that would not only legalize cannabis for adults 21 and older, but also support the social and criminal justice components of legalization.

Senate and House leadership ultimately introduced S.B. 16 to realize the governor’s goals.

The legislation would legalize the possession of up to 1.5 ounces of cannabis starting July 1, and in July 2022, the state would launch retail cannabis sales.

“In the interim, between now and 2022, when the first retail shops open up, the legislature is charged with putting together the regulatory framework, which includes a licensing scheme [and] the social equity piece, which is ensuring that people who have been disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs have access to this new industry,” DeVaughn Ward, Senior Legislative Counsel for the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), tells Cannabis Business Times. “[It’s] essentially getting the state ramped up to take this on, which includes the hiring of more drug recognition officers [and] putting in some protections for workers. These are all issues … the legislature would study from passage up until the rollout in 2022.”

The Judiciary Committee held a public hearing on S.B. 16 March 2.

“It was a pretty different experience to have a bill being sponsored by the governor,” Matt Simon, legislative analyst for MPP, tells Cannabis Business Times. “The hearing led off with several administration officials testifying in support and explaining various aspects of the bill, so that wasn’t an experience I had had previously. … His administration went to bat for it at the hearing, and it was a full day of testimony, most of it favorable, on the bill.”

“MPP viewed it as largely positive,” Ward adds. “There was your usual opposition—police chiefs and some clergy were in opposition. But largely, … what’s really striking people is the inevitability argument. In the very near future, there’s a strong possibility that Connecticut is going to be surrounded by states that have decided to legalize. … I think … the inevitability argument is really hitting home with a lot of residents.”

There are at least three cannabis dispensaries within 15 miles of the Connecticut border, Simon adds, and these statistics have started to shift the conversation in the state.

“It’s no longer [a] theoretical reality of people being able to buy cannabis in stores,” he says. “It’s right across the border, and there’s only going to be more. Anybody that didn’t already have access to cannabis in Connecticut certainly has it now, so why not move forward?”

While the Judiciary Committee’s hearing didn’t turn up any organized opposition to legalization, some testified with what Ward calls “fine-tuned critiques” to the specific bill. Overall, stakeholders want to ensure the legislation contains robust social equity components, and some wanted to see a home grow provision, although one is not currently included in the bill.

“It currently would set up a study to report on the feasibility of allowing home cultivation,” Simon says. “Obviously, a lot of advocates, including me, would prefer that was in the bill rather than a study. There are opponents who are trying to pick apart different aspects of it. There are a lot of questions about how the social equity provisions would work. Some of the questions come from the perspective of wanting to make a policy and other questions come from the perspective of trying to poke holes in things and trying to raise doubt. It’s the legislative process—there are going to be good days and bad days. … We just hope it continues to become a better bill through the process.”

The Judiciary Committee is currently marking up the bill and implementing some of the changes suggested at the hearing, Ward says, and then the committee will vote on the revised version of the legislation.

Some of the amendments will likely seek to align Connecticut’s adult-use cannabis law with Massachusetts’ regulations, as well as legalization proposals in New York, he says. Lamont participated in New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Regional Cannabis Regulation and Vaping Summit last fall with the governors of New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and Ward expects some of this momentum to continue.

“Connecticut is very much looking at what’s been proposed in New York [and] what’s already in place in Massachusetts, and they’re making sure they’re in somewhat uniformity with them to bring some regional consistency to this industry,” he says.

A different but parallel policy seems to be the goal of the states’ regional approach to cannabis, Simon adds.

“There was never, I don’t think, any possibility that the states would somehow adopt identical policies—it’s just the nature of the differences between the … states’ governments and agencies and departments,” he says. “To get to that regional approach, I think states have to start moving forward with these processes and then real policies can be married together regionally as things move forward.”

Ward and Simon are both optimistic about the legislation clearing the Judiciary Committee, since the committee narrowly passed one of the three legalization proposals last year.

“The membership hasn’t changed this year, so we imagine the votes are there to move the governor’s proposal … out of committee,” Ward says. “It may be a tightrope, but we anticipate the votes are there to move it.”

The Judiciary Committee’s deadline to act on the legislation is March 30.

“If we can get it out of committee, then it goes to the Senate floor, where we think we have the votes, as well,” Ward says.

“It has the support in both chambers from leadership, and I think everybody agrees that the Senate would easily pass it,” Simon adds. “There’s some question about the numbers in the House. There are a number of members who are not committed one way or the other and who say that they haven’t seen the final bill, so they’re not going to commit to anything until there’s a final product that they can really test on their caucus.”

Two ancillary bills concerning expungement are also pending in the legislature this year, Ward says. One is a “Clean Slate” bill put forth by Lamont to automatically erase certain cannabis-related convictions. A competing Clean Slate proposal has been sponsored by Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Gary Winfield, which Ward says takes an even more expansive approach to expungement.

As the bills meander their way through the legislature, Ward and Simon will continue their lobbying efforts in the state.

“We’ve put together a strong team and a lot of resources on the ground to try to get this across the finish line here in Connecticut,” Ward says. “We are focusing strongly on Democrats because they hold the majority in the chamber, but we’ve also been reaching out to Republicans. We know there are certainly some folks in their caucus that support a commonsense approach to cannabis, as well.”

Social and criminal justice are two of the main components that MPP would like to see included in Connecticut’s final cannabis law, he says.

“We think the biggest part is equity,” Ward says. “We want to make sure that folks who have been disproportionately affected by the war on drugs have a real opportunity in this emerging industry and a real place at the table.”

Consumer safety is another important piece of the puzzle, he adds. “In Connecticut, there are provisions in the bill that require the product to have very strict labeling, … [and] it explicitly says you can’t use cartoon characters to entice minors to use the product. … We cannot stress enough that we’re not advocating for children or folks under the age of 21 to use this product. We want to make sure that the adults who use this product use it responsibly, … taking into consideration the health effects."

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