HARTFORD, CT – The House held a long-anticipated 90-minute debate Tuesday, but did not vote, on whether to legalize recreational marijuana in Connecticut.
But that doesn’t mean the legalizing pot is dead. It could be brought back as part of a budget plan that eventually will be voted upon when the General Assembly convenes a special session sometime before the regular session ends Wednesday.
One of the leading proponents of legalizing recreational marijuana Rep. Juan Candelaria, D-New Haven, implored his fellow legislators to not be afraid to take the bold step of voting for legalization.
“I know it’s a tough decision,” Candelaria said, “but if we do nothing we will continue to subsidize the drug dealers of our state.”
Earlier Wednesday, before the House debated, Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, said if they put recreational marijuana up for a vote they were probably about one dozen votes shy of passing it. However, if they put it in the budget then the likelihood increases.
In a year it will be available in Massachusetts and “people will start changing their minds,” House Majority Leader Matt Ritter said.
“I don’t agree with the speaker’s perspective on bringing up bills he knows he can’t pass,” House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, said.
She said this is an issue that couldn’t get through the committee process.
Recreational marijuana is at least the fourth bill in the House that has been debated and tabled. The first was the National Popular Vote, followed by “An Act Concerning Police Misconduct,” and tolls.
Eight states and Washington, D.C. have legalized recreational pot.
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.
The Democratic budget proposal said it would bring in $60 million in revenue in 2018 and $100 million in revenue in 2019.
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 fill a $5.1 billion budget deficit.
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.
Referring to that Quinnipiac poll, Candelaria said “I’ll bet you it’s 70 percent now (in favor of legalization).”
Also speaking in favor of legalization on the House floor was Rep. Melissa Ziobron, R-East Haddam.
“This is about personal liberty,” Ziobron said.
Ziobron said she knows that those who are opposed to legalization worry that marijuana use could lead to opioid use – and the state of Connecticut like many other states in the country is in the grips of an opioid crisis.
“I do not believe that marijuana is a gateway to opioids,” Ziobron said. “No one has died from using marijuana alone.”
She added that she believes alcohol use is more of a gateway to opioids than marijuana.
That view differed with a fellow Republican, however.
Rep. Vincent Candelora, R-North Branford, said the state was “struggling to get our arms around opioid addiction,” and in part because of that reason he could not support legalization.
“Children no longer fear marijuana,” Candelora said. He added that he’d rather see Connecticut “be late” to the marijuana legalization game and let other states, such as Colorado, do more study of the impacts before jumping into legalization.
“We used to be known as the state of steady habits,” Rep. John Hampton, D-Simsbury, added. “I don’t want to be known as the state of bad habits.”
Another proponent was Rep. Josh Elliott, D-Hamden, who said his argument “is not that it is the safest drug on the planet. You can overdo just about anything.”
Elliott added: “Some people will like it; some will not and the world will continue.”
And, he added, “we can tax it.”
The legislation debated by the House on Tuesday was crafted by Ziobron, Elliott and Candelaria.
A press conference to promote the legislation on Monday was abruptly called off because Ziobron was upset that her Democratic colleagues hadn’t included her in conversations to re-craft the legislation.
The bill directs the Department of Consumer Protection to establish a regulated system of 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.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has repeatedly stated that legalizing recreational use “isn’t a priority” for him, though he has added he would follow developments if and when a bill legalizing recreational pot makes it through the House and Senate.
On Tuesday he said that “so far it doesn’t appear to have support in the legislature so on this I’m not saying never, but it’s not something I’ve advocated.”
Christine Stuart contributed to this story.