cannabis bud (shutterstock)

HARTFORD, CT — With the biggest state in the country now selling recreational marijuana and Massachusetts ready to start in a matter of months it’s a sure bet that legalizing pot will once again be a hot issue when the General Assembly session opens in February.

California began selling recreational marijuana Monday in what’s seen as a milestone. California is the sixth state to allow sales of recreational marijuana, and as the nation’s most populous state, it’s widely seen as a tremendous boost to mainstreaming marijuana.

“Cannabis is now legal in the most populous state in the country,” New Frontier Data, which tracks the cannabis industry, wrote in its 2017 annual report, “dramatically increasing the total potential size of the industry while establishing legal adult use markets across the entire US Pacific Coast given the legalized states of Washington and Oregon.”

The California industry is forecast to reach $7 billion in a few years, more than the $6.6 billion of the entire legal cannabis market in the United States in 2016, according to New Frontier Data.

California adults 21 and older can possess as much as an ounce and grow up to six plants at home as of Monday.

State and local taxes add a hefty chunk to the price, and depending where it’s bought, taxes can add as much as 45 percent to the cost.

Other states that allow the sale of recreational marijuana are Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Alaska and Nevada.

As of July 1st Massachusetts, Connecticut’s neighbor, will join the list. And soon to follow will be Maine, though no definite date has yet been set.

“We are surrounded by states that have are will be legalizing recreational marijuana,” Rep. Melissa Ziobron, R-East Haddam, said.

Ziobron has been a vocal supporter of legalization and has submitted a proposed legalization bill for the upcoming legislative session.

And she has company in the state legislature.

“The time has come – for sure,” Senate President Martin Looney, D-New Haven, another proponent for legalization said. Looney has sponsored legislation legalizing recreational marijuana in the past and he said he likely will again in the upcoming session.

Looney said that when a state such as California, which he termed as one of the “largest economies” in the world, acts then Connecticut needs to pay attention.

“We have a significant need to raise revenue,” Looney said, and legalizing and taxing marijuana is one way.

ctnewsjunkie file photo
Reps. Melissa Ziobron, Robyn Porter and Toni Walker testify last year in favor of legalizing marijuana (ctnewsjunkie file photo)

One of those who isn’t optimistic that Connecticut will join the list of states legalizing pot is Rep. Josh Elliott, D-Hamden, who is a big proponent of legalization.

“To be perfectly honest, I have accepted the fact that we are not going to legalize marijuana this year,” Elliott said. “There is a pretty clear correlation between those who are against legalization, and those who are against a whole host of other initiatives it is time for Connecticut to act on.”

Elliott added: “The legislators against legalization just turn this around by saying we would be willing to sell out the health of our children for the sake of a buck. My argument is simple: smoking weed is just not a big deal. It affects no one but myself. And those times when it does affect other people, like getting into an accident while high, then that person should face punishment.”

The overall issue of states legalizing marijuana took a new turn this week, as U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, President Donald Trump’s top law enforcement official, announced he is rescinding an Obama-era policy that paved the way for states to legalize marijuana without federal involvement.

In a statement, Sessions said the Obama-era guidance undermined “the rule of law” and the Justice Department’s mission is to enforce federal statutes.

“Today’s memo on federal marijuana enforcement simply directs all U.S. attorneys to use previously established prosecutorial principles that provide them all the necessary tools to disrupt criminal organizations, tackle the growing drug crisis, and thwart violent crime across our country,” Sessions said.

National Cannabis Industry Association Executive Director Aaron Smith reacted to the action by Sessions.

“This news from the Department of Justice is disturbing, especially in light of the fact that 73 percent of voters oppose federal interference with state cannabis laws,” Smith said. “But, the rescinding of this memo does not necessarily mean that any major change in enforcement policy is on the horizon. This has been, and still will be, a matter of prosecutorial discretion.”

Smith added: “We therefore hope that Department of Justice officials, including U.S. Attorneys, will continue to uphold President Trump’s campaign promise to not interfere with state cannabis programs, which have been overwhelmingly successful in undercutting the criminal market.”

Back in Connecticut, even though 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, efforts to legalize pot in the cash-strapped state of Connecticut have failed the past few years.

Connecticut’s Office of Fiscal Analysis has determined that the Nutmeg state could bring in from $45.4 million to $104.6 million a year if the legislature legalizes marijuana in the same way it’s been done in Massachusetts or Colorado.

The June 28, 2017 Democratic budget proposal said it would bring in $60 million in 2018 and $100 million in 2019.

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.

“I think the implementation of legal adult use marijuana in California is of more importance nationally, given the population and the size of the marijuana market there,” Morgan Fox, director of communications for the Marijuana Policy Project, a group that advocates for legalizing pot, said.

“However, the incoming implementation of regulated sales in Massachusetts will have more immediate effects in Connecticut,” Fox said. “The tax benefits and job creation that accompany a regulated marijuana market are going to be very apparent, and Connecticut residents are not going to want to see their neighbors pass them by.”

Fox added: “In additions, is very likely that Rhode Island will make marijuana legal for adults in the near future, and New York may not be far behind.”

Ziobron said one of the things she really wants people to understand is that “I am a supporter of legalization only for those who are 21 or older.”

She added: “We should treat this just like we treat alcohol. No one is advocating for younger people to use recreational pot.”

But not everyone agrees that young people won’t be targeted if recreational pot is legalized.

“The word ‘recreation’ is primarily associated with kids and teens, so by calling this ‘recreational’ marijuana, the proponents have made it clear that this is aimed at our young people,” Bo Huhn, a member of Guilford Developmental Assets for Youth (DAY) said.

“There is a ton of neuroscientific research showing that chronic marijuana use adversely affects the developing brain of adolescents,” Huhn said.

Ziobron said she is hoping that the issue of legalization of recreational marijuana is taken up early in the legislative session that starts in February “and then gets a full airing.”

“We should not be doing this at the end of the session when the discussion always inevitably becomes one about money,” she said.

One of the arguments against legalization that has been repeatedly raised in past Connecticut legislative sessions, especially by law enforcement officials, is that there is no equivalent DUI test for marijuana use like there is for alcohol.

“It’s true that there is not currently a scientific test that can detect whether or not someone is under the influence of marijuana,” Becky Dansky, legislative counsel for the Marijuana Policy Project, said. “However officers can use field sobriety tests to determine if someone is incapable of safely operating a motor vehicle, and driving while incapacitated will still be illegal.”

“What we’ve found in Colorado, which has the largest amount of available data, is that marijuana legalization has not been a factor in any increase in fatal car accidents, even the DOT, the AAA of CO and others concede that,” Dansky added. “Rather, distracted driving is the greatest factor contributing to increases.”