Jack Kramer / ctnewsjunkie photo
Joe Toth (Jack Kramer / ctnewsjunkie photo)

HARTFORD, CT — It didn’t take long for proponents of legalizing recreational cannabis to start making their case Wednesday to the newly-convened General Assembly.

In fact, a small contingent from the pro-pot faction rallied early outside the state capital in support of legalization at the very same time members of the new House of Representatives and Senate were being sworn in.

Legalizing recreational marijuana efforts have stalled in previous sessions of the General Assembly. But proponents are hoping that with large Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, and with Gov. Ned Lamont’s stated support as well, legalization will finally happen this year.

Several legalization bills are expected to be raised in both the House and Senate.

Wednesday’s rally was held by Connecticut NORML, a state chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).

The group supports a repeal of the prohibition of marijuana at the local, state, and federal levels and hopes to accomplish that goal by educating those in the community about marijuana and hemp and their potential medical and industrial use, while promoting the responsible use of marijuana by adults.

“Everyone is feeling like this is going to be the year,” said Joe Toth of Seymour. “We’re feeling confident.”

Kebra Smith-Bolden, of New Haven, said her interest in legalization is personal. She held a sign saying marijuana arrests were racist.

“As a person of color I see my community devastated by the number of black and brown people being put in jail over this harmless drug,” she said. “We need to stop the mass incarceration.”

Jack Kramer / ctnewsjunkie
Kebra Smith-Bolden, of New Haven (Jack Kramer / ctnewsjunkie)

In 2018, six bills related to legalizing and regulating cannabis in Connecticut were introduced and four hearings were held on the issue. A bill that would begin planning for the legalization of recreational marijuana in Connecticut was sent to the House after narrowly passing the Appropriations Committee by a 27-24 vote.

Those opposed to legalization know this may be the toughest fight yet to beat back efforts to legalize pot. But they are determined to wage the good fight.

“There are a number of controversial issues related to the legalization of marijuana that the proponents, particularly the corporate interests hiding in the weeds, do not wish to talk about,” William Huhn, spokesman for Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM), said in a statement.

“The governor and legislative leaders pushing for legalization are more than willing to close their eyes to the problems and to deny the existence of obvious risks,” Huhn said. “They’re willing to ignore the widespread devastation caused by drug abuse in our society.”

Huhn said one of the key arguments that will be forwarded during debate on marijuana legalization is the lack of field tests that would keep impaired drivers off the road.

“Do members of the public want increased DUI while they are driving with their families, while their kids are riding bikes, while they are jogging?” Huhn asked. “Do the public surveys ask about that?”

“Legalization of retail marijuana will increase use in Connecticut, both by existing users and new users,” Huhn continued. “Many will be able to use and suffer no consequence, but others will not. A solid percentage will become addicted. And a solid percentage will move on to other drugs that provide more powerful highs.”

Connecticut voters have supported legalization in several polls. It also has a flourishing medical marijuana program.

In December, state officials announced that there will be nine new dispensaries in New Haven, Westport, Stamford, Torrington, Meriden, Groton, Newington, Mansfield, and Windham to serve the more than 30,000 patients.

The new facilities will join the nine others already in operation, according to the Department of Consumer Protection (DCP).

The most recent poll was conducted in October 2017 by Sacred Heart University. Results suggested that 71 percent of Connecticut residents strongly supported or somewhat supported legalizing and taxing marijuana at that time, in the context of the state’s budget crisis.

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.

Connecticut is still facing a substantial two-year, multi-billion budget deficit.

Massachusetts recently became the seventh state in the nation to establish a regulated cannabis market for adults. A total of nine states have enacted laws to legalize, regulate, and tax marijuana for adult use. Lawmakers in Vermont and voters in Washington, D.C. adopted laws making marijuana possession and cultivation legal for adults, but not commercial production or sales. In Maine, sales are expected to begin in the fall.

In Massachusetts, adults 21 and older are able to purchase up to one ounce of marijuana from licensed marijuana retail stores, of which no more than five grams can be in concentrate form. It remains illegal to consume marijuana in public.

In Massachusetts, cannabis products sold for adult use are subject to a 6.25 percent state sales tax and a 10.75 percent state excise tax, and municipal officials have the option of levying additional local taxes of up to 3 percent. A study released in June 2018 by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health estimated that adult marijuana sales would generate more than $200 million for the state and up to $3 million for local governments in the first two years alone.