HARTFORD, CT — Tuesday was “pot day” at the state Capitol. Depending on which room you were in at the Legislative Office Building views on legalizing recreational cannabis couldn’t have been more conflicting.
In one room you had a group of state legislators, and other advocates saying the time has come for Connecticut to join the eight other states and Washington, D.C. in legalizing recreation use of cannabis for adults over 21 years of age.
Across the hall, a few hundred yards away, you had another group of legislators, about 40 police officials, and a different group of advocates claiming legalizing recreational marijuana in Connecticut would be the worst thing to do.
Both sides presented “facts” which they said proved their position in dueling press conferences.
Later in the morning, the Public Health Committee held a public hearing on the matter.
One of the four bills, H.B. 5314, sponsored by Rep. Melissa Ziobron, R-East Haddam, directs the Department of Consumer Protection to establish a regulated system of marijuana cultivation and sales for adults 21 years of age and older. The Department of Revenue Services would create a tax structure that would generate revenue for the state and certain municipalities.
Connecticut’s Office of Fiscal Analysis has determined that the Nutmeg state could bring in $45.4 million to $104.6 million a year in revenue if the legislature legalizes marijuana in the same way Massachusetts or Colorado.
“One of my goals in proposing legislation to legalize marijuana is to promote a healthy and substantive discussion on the issue,” Ziobron said. “I feel that the legalization of marijuana is inevitable and, as such, Connecticut should be at the forefront of the movement in order to set the standard for effective policy.”
Ziobron and the sponsors of three similar proposals — Senate President Martin Looney, D-New Haven, and Reps. Juan Candelaria, D-New Haven, and Toni Walker, D-New Haven — have agreed to work together to end cannabis prohibition in Connecticut and to ensure whichever bill moves forward will create the best system possible for regulating and taxing the plant.
During testimony in front of the Public Health Committee later in the day, Ziobron said that marijuana is “safer than alcohol and tobacco.”
“The time has come for us to consider legalization,” Ziobron told her fellow legislators, adding she knows it is “a difficult topic for many.”
One of the co-sponsors of Ziobron’s bill, Rep. Josh Elliott, D-Hamden, used himself as an example of why he believes recreational pot should be legalized, during the press conference held by backers.
Elliott told his story of being a professional poker player, real estate broker, law school graduate, and last year winning the race to represent the 88th District.
“From beginning to end I have intermittently and casually smoked marijuana,” Elliott said. “It is incredible how that sentence can brand someone as a slacker or loser — given how over half of the population has tried cannabis at some point in their life.”
Elliott said he didn’t smoke a joint and go to work, or drive a car. “I get high when I come home, and I feel like watching some TV,” Elliot said. “I do it in the same way someone might have a drink after work, or take a hike in the woods.”
Elliott continued to tell the audience why he thinks Connecticut should hop on board the recreational marijuana bandwagon.
He finished his pitch by stating: “It’s time for our state to lead by example. We can be better. We can be honest. It’s time to stop using marijuana as a tool to marginalize people. Let’s tax it, and treat the sale and use like any other industry.”
The potential for making money off cannabis was clearly one of the biggest reasons recreational use seems to have a better chance of making it through the legislature this year than in the past, as the state struggles to make up a huge budget deficit.
Walker said the state has “to look at new industries.” She estimated that legalizing cannabis for recreational use could bring in $63 million in revenue in year one, and more than $100 million in the second. She added that it also could bring in 15,000 new jobs.
Nearly two-thirds of Connecticut voters, or 63 percent, support making possession of small amounts of cannabis legal for adults, according to a March 2015 Quinnipiac University poll.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has repeatedly stated that legalizing recreational use “isn’t a priority” for him.
“While the governor’s personal position has not changed with respect to this issue, he is following the debate at this proposal works through the legislative process,” Meg Green, spokesperson for the governor, said Tuesday.
Connecticut Coalition to Regulate Marijuana (CCRM) Director Sam Tracy said the vast majority of voters in Connecticut think it’s time to end the prohibition on recreational use.
“Marijuana is less harmful than alcohol to the consumer and to society. It should be produced and sold by tightly regulated, taxpaying businesses — not by criminals in the underground market,” Tracy said.
But back in the room across the hallway, those opposed to legalizing recreational cannabis were just as ardent as supporters in their statements.
Monroe Police Chief John Salvatore, who is also president of the Connecticut Police Chiefs Association, said legalizing pot “will diminish the quality of life in the state.”
Salvatore, who was surrounded by 40 other police officials from various towns in the state while making his comments, said he’s talked with police officials in Colorado, which was the first state in the country to legalize recreational cannabis, and the feedback he gets isn’t good.
“Increases in crime, increases in homelessness, many panhandlers in streets in areas that were once night resort areas are now decaying and they’re losing convention business. So there are other costs a municipality or a state will incur if do they legalize recreational marijuana,” Salvatore said.
Salvatore said states that have legalized recreational use have seen “increased expulsions, suspensions and dropout rates.”
Also imploring the General Assembly to continue the prohibition on recreational use was Guilford High School junior Gabby Palumbo, who is a member of Guilford DAY (Developmental Assets for Youth), a group active in substance abuse initiatives at both a local and state level.
She said legalizing cannabis would “send a wrong and hypocritical message.”
Palumbo said it would, first, be telling young people that smoking pot is ok; second, she said, it would send the message that “revenue outweighs public health concerns.”
Back at the public hearing, Rep. Robyn Porter, D-New Haven, said she felt another reason that Connecticut should legalize recreational marijuana is that proportionately those who are arrested for smoking it “are people of color.”
The stigma that comes with those arrests, Porter said, sticks with the individual and it winds up impacting them well past their arrest. She said the kind of jobs that people with drug convictions get, if any, “are throwing around tires for Town Fair.”
But both Rep. Vincent Candelora, R-North Branford, and Sen. George Logan, R-Ansonia, noted that Connecticut has decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana in previous years.
Those who are being incarcerated for drug offenses are more likely the sellers, not the users, Candelora said.
And Logan, who said he wasn’t in favor of legalizing recreational pot, added that drug users being sent to jail “may not be as significant as you are indicating.” Logan also said his own research shows that traffic deaths in Colorado, in the past two years, have increased by 48 percent.
Logan said he was also troubled by revenue estimates that he’s seen projected by advocates for legalizing recreational marijuana — stating there are “lots of costs” that aren’t being talked about, including additional health, hospital and medical costs, and addiction and professional counseling costs that will come with legalization.
And, added Logan, that’s not even adding in the bureaucratic cost of administering the program.
Candelora also questioned why the proposed legislation picked the age of 21 for legalization, stating that medical research has shown that the brain is still developing until later in the 20s.
One of those who submitted written testimony against the proposed legislation was Deepak Cyril D’Souza, a staff psychiatrist at the VA Connecticut Healthcare System and a professor of psychiatry at the Yale University School of Medicine.
He wrote that “there is accumulating evidence that the brain of adolescents is more vulnerable to the effects of cannabis.”
Ziobron said her bill was drawn up to “mimic” alcohol regulations, but that she wouldn’t be adverse to amending it to increase the age if there was legislative consensus to do so.