Get ready, Connecticut. We could be seeing an influx of incense, black lights and people who say “dude” and laugh inappropriately. That’s because if the residents of of neighboring Massachusetts pass a ballot initiative next month allowing for the legal sale and consumption of recreational marijuana, Connecticut will almost certainly follow suit.
Among the four propositions on the Nov. 8 ballot in the Bay State is one that wold permit the cultivation, use and sale of weed to persons over 21 years of age. A similar proposition is on the ballot in Maine. In all, voters in five states (including California) will decide whether to fully legalize recreational use, while voters in four more will consider whether to allow medical marijuana.
In a normal year, the weed question would be the dominant story. It would bring all sorts of Reefer Madness types out of the woodwork, replete with dire warnings about the evil weed. But as is obvious from our bizarre presidential campaign, this is not a normal year. Yet beyond the battle between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, the Massachusetts proposition getting the most attention appears to be one that would lift the state’s cap on charter schools.
A recent WBUR poll showed support for the legal weed question leading the opposition by a margin of 55-40 percent, with 5 percent undecided. That’s an increase in support of 5 percentage points from the second week of September.
This is despite bipartisan opposition from Gov. Charlie Baker, Attorney General Maura Healy and Boston Mayor Marty Walsh. So for purposes of argument, let’s assume that legal weed will become a reality in the Bay State in January 2018, when actual sales would likely begin. What happens in Connecticut?
At this point, the only states that have legalized recreational pot have done so through voter ballot initiative. It’s one thing to vote for medical marijuana, as lawmakers already have in Connecticut. For obvious reasons, politicians who are hardly known for their courage in the first place, don’t want to have their fingerprints on legislation that might result in more teenagers toking away.
But no mechanism exists in Connecticut. Issues can find their way onto a statewide ballot exclusively through a legislatively referred constitutional amendment, as last happened two years ago. In other words, the only way voters have a direct say is if our lawmakers think we should — and even then, only if they want us to amend a state constitution no one really understands anyway.
So if Massachusetts starts selling weed for pleasure and collects the tax revenue to go along with it, it’ll be up to members of the Connecticut General Assembly alone to decide if we should go forward with our own program.
And if I had to guess, I’d say it will be hard for them to resist jumping on the bandwagon for one reason: money talks. It goes without saying that there will be lots of applications from Massachusetts weed retailers in border towns such as Longmeadow, Sturbridge, and Great Barrington. That means a lot of Connecticut taxpayers dollars flowing out of state.
Colorado, a state of some 5.5 million people, generated $135 million in marijuana tax revenue during the last fiscal year. A study two years ago by the General Assembly’s nonpartisan Office of Fiscal Analysis estimated Connecticut could see as much as $55 million in annual revenue from marijuana taxes. State Rep. Juan Candelaria, D-New Haven, says his research indicates “Connecticut could generate about $50 million in the first year of operation; $100 million-plus in the second year.”
In a time of perpetual budget crisis, would our lawmakers really want to hand that kind of money over to archrival Massachusetts, which recently lured away General Electric, perhaps the most iconic corporation ever to be headquartered in Connecticut?
And Connecticut might even want to consider a weed tax structure similar to what’s being proposed in Massachusetts. While medical marijuana will remain untaxed, all recreational pot sales will be subject to the regular Massachusetts sales tax of 6.25 percent, plus a special excise tax of 3.75 percent.
But here’s the kicker, the law will allow municipalities that host pot retailing facilities to add as much as two percentage points to the state sales tax and pocket the extra revenue. If enacted here, that local tax option could add hundreds of thousands of dollars — or perhaps even millions in larger cities such as Hartford and Bridgeport — in revenue to cash-strapped municipalities and their schools.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not crazy about marijuana. It’s not a harmless drug. If you use it, there is a lot of evidence that memory loss and diminished motivation can result. But contrary to what opponents of legal pot claim, the evidence is not clear that an increase in consumption will result among teenagers.
Legal marijuana will be here to stay. Lawmakers can either embrace it or stand on principle and watch perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars flow out of a state that’s already hemorrhaging money.
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