Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie
Appropriations Committe (Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie)

HARTFORD, CT —A bill that would begin planning for the legalization of recreational marijuana in Connecticut was sent to the House Thursday after narrowly passing the Appropriations Committee by a 27-24 vote.

Rep. Juan Candelaria, D-New Haven, a strong proponent of legalization, conceded that the bill, HB 5394, was a “work in progress.” But Candelaria said with states all around Connecticut either already legalizing or moving to legalize marijuana, that Connecticut “needs to have a plan when, not if, this (legalization) happens.”

Rep. Pam Staneski, R-Milford, voted against the bill. She said she was opposed because the bill mandates that a plan be developed to have a regulating body oversee legalization.

“We don’t have the money for it,” Staneski said.

Appropriations Committee Co-Chair Toni Walker, D-New Haven, another proponent of legalization, pointed out that the fiscal note for the bill states that the Office of Policy and Management has sufficient resources to regulate.

“The bill, which requires the Office of Policy and Management to develop a plan to legalize and regulate the retail sale of marijuana, has no fiscal impact. It is anticipated that the agency has the resources to develop this plan,” the Office of Fiscal Analysis note states.

Appropriations Committee Co-Chairman Sen. Paul Formica, R-East Lyme, said he’s not convinced the bill should win approval, but the House and the Senate deserve “an opportunity to have a conversation.”

As has been the case for the past several years, passionate cases were made by both sides on whether to legalize recreational marijuana during a public hearing held in front of the Appropriations Committee.

An October 2017 poll by Sacred Heart University showed that 71 percent of Connecticut residents support regulating and taxing marijuana for adults. 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.

But opponents of legalization don’t believe those numbers or other research proponents often say that state marijuana isn’t a gateway drug to harder drugs down the road.

“It’s important to look deep into the research and who is doing the research,” Bo Huhn, a spokesman for both CT Smart Approaches to Marijuana and Guilford Development Assets for Youth (DAY), said at the public hearing.

Huhn who testified against legalization before the committee has been a frequent speaker at legalization hearings the past few years at the legislature.

“It’s just such an important issue,” Huhn said. “The overdose issue that is plaguing our state and our country has also changed the dynamic. The legislature needs to be careful.”

Huhn added: “I wish it (pot) didn’t have adverse effects. But the research those on our side have looked at shows that’s not the case.”

During the public hearing, Walker pointed out that research she’s read shows that states that have legalized weed show increased revenue and decreased arrests.

The Office of Fiscal Analysis estimated last year that Connecticut could bring in $45.4 million to $104.6 million a year if it legalizes marijuana in the same way it’s been done in Massachusetts or Colorado.

Nine states and Washington, D.C. have legalized recreational pot.

In 2012, Colorado and Washington state became the first to legally allow pot for recreational purposes. Washington, D.C., and six other states, including Massachusetts and California, have since legalized marijuana — although D.C., like Vermont, does not allow recreational pot sales.

As of July 1, people in Massachusetts will be selling recreational pot. And soon to follow will be Maine, although no date has yet been set there.

The General Law Committee on March 20 defeated a different bill — one that would have crafted a regulatory structure for recreational marijuana — by a vote of 11 to 6.

That bill didn’t technically legalize marijuana, but it would have legalized possession of up to an ounce and it would have allowed a person over the age of 21 to cultivate not more than six marijuana plants.

It also set up a licensing scheme for “marijuana lounges and marijuana retailers.”

A proponent of legalization, Rep. Josh Elliott, D-Hamden, has said the House Democratic caucus is still 17 votes shy of passage. Democrats hold an 80-71 majority over Republicans in that chamber.