House Democrats on Thursday unveiled a plan to legalize and tax recreational marijuana while addressing the profound toll criminalization has taken on generations of African-Americans.
In addition to legalizing marijuana, the proposals would expunge arrest records for people charged with minor drug offenses and prohibit both cultivation at home and the sale of candy containing the psychoactive ingredient in cannabis.
"Legalizing a substance that has been illegal for more than 80 years is a complicated process,'' said Rep. Michael D’Agostino, a Hamden Democrat and co-chairman of the general law committee. He called the proposals outlined at a press conference Thursday the "first draft in a complex process.”
In a series of three bills that were quietly drafted behind the scenes over the course of the past few weeks, lawmakers laid out a framework for the legal cultivation and sale of cannabis to adults over 21. But they stressed that their effort represents a start of a discussion, not a finished product.
If the bills clear the General Assembly this session and are signed into law by Gov. Ned Lamont, a supporter of legalization, a retail marijuana pilot program could begin by the end of the year, D’Agostino said.
Before crafting their proposals, Connecticut lawmakers studied statutes governing legal recreational marijuana in several other states, including Massachusetts and Colorado. D’Agostino said they sought to place certain controls on Connecticut’s program, such as not permitting the sale of cannabis-laced gummy candies, which could prove appealing to children.
The legislation includes provisions designed to ensure minority entrepreneurs have an entry point into the multimillion marijuana industry by granting them first access to cultivation and other types of licenses. It also includes companion legislation that would wipe clear the criminal records of people charged with low-level drug offenses.
Those two sections of the bill had been sought by members of the legislature’s Black and Puerto Rican Caucus, who said they would not support any legalization bill that did not seek to address the historic racial inequities of the war on drugs.
"It’s important that the equity component is attached to any bill that’s passed in Connecticut,'' said Sen. Douglas McCrory, a Hartford Democrat. "Some communities have been harmed more by the war on cannabis than others. Those communities have been destroyed and they need to be rebuilt.''
Sen. Gary Winfield, a Democrat from New Haven, said the bill represents a chance to establish a policy that’s fair and just. "For us to pass a cannabis legalization bill means some people will be making a lot of money ... at the very least, we need to go back and fix those decisions we made in the past,” he said.
Ten other states have legalized recreational marijuana but none have take formal steps to guarantee that minority-owned businesses have access to the pot industry.
The bill proposed by D’Agostino envisions a tightly regulated industry modeled on the state’s medical marijuana program, where everything from manufacturing processes to THC content is subject to state oversight. It would establish a panel to issue licenses and oversee the program.
The draft bill does not allow for homegrown marijuana, although it directs the committee to study the possibility of allowing it in the future. "That is probably one of the main fault lines with respect to this law,'' D’Agostino said. “There’s a very powerful advocate community that thinks, ‘hey it’s just like tomatoes and you should be able to grow it like you grow anything else,' ” he said. “Others want to see that very regulated.”
Lawmakers are proposing allowing the state’s medical marijuana providers to sell a higher potency product to patients. Medical marijuana cultivators and manufacturers would also be given early access to recreational cannabis licenses.
The tax piece of proposal remains largely unwritten. Rep. Jason Rojas, chairman of the legislature’s finance committee, said that piece will come after the legalization measure has been finalized by the general law committee. Revenue estimates for legal marijuana sales have varied, with the state collecting anywhere between $30 million and $180 million a year, depending on the source of the estimates.
Rojas said he expects the tax scheme will mirror that of Massachusetts, where legal marijuana sales began last fall. “We’re looking at a 20 percent combined rate so that were not competing with Massachusetts and not incentivizing people to go there and purchase their cannabis,'' he said.
The third component of the legalization effort is under the jurisdiction of the judiciary committee. That panel will review a bill that will set new penalties for driving under the influence of cannabis. That bill would also provide for the erasure of criminal records for those previously convicted of possession of less than 1.5 ounces of marijuana, said judiciary panel co-chairman Steve Stafstrom.
The judiciary committee and the general law committee are scheduled to hold separate hearings on marijuana bills on March 22.
“This is the start of the process," D’Agostino said. "It is a long way to June ... we expect these bills to evolve and then to be put together on a final comprehensive bill on legalization that the legislature can take up.”
Last year, advocates proposed four competing bills and held multiple public hearings by this point. But only one of the bills survived a committee vote and the issue was not voted on in either the House or the Senate.
Lamont said during last year’s gubernatorial campaign he would make legalizing recreational marijuana a priority, but he did not include any revenue from marijuana sales in his budget proposal last month. He favored the idea in his budget address to lawmakers, however, and urged them to move forward with legislation.
Daniela Altimari can be reached at email@example.com.