Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie photo

HARTFORD, CT — The 2019 General Assembly is just two weeks old but already one of the signature battles expected to dominate this session — legalizing recreational marijuana — is heating up.

Marijuana legalization proponents wasted no time getting started, holding a mini-rally in favor of legalization on Jan. 9, the day Gov. Ned Lamont was inaugurated.

On Wednesday, those opposed to legalization fired back.

The Connecticut Chapter of Smart Approaches to Marijuana (CT SAM) and the Connecticut Association of Prevention Professionals (CAPP) held a Legislative Office Building press conference “to inform legislators and the public regarding the health risks of legalizing retail marijuana and recent findings, such as how states that have legalized marijuana now lead the U.S. in teen use.”

Those speaking out against legalization included police chiefs, medical experts, legislators, ad high school students. Their message was that the legislature should tread carefully before legalizing recreational — also called “adult use” — marijuana, and to not fall in love with the potential financial windfall it could bring. They warned of other costs, such as increased drug use, that could outweigh the benefits.

“Local law enforcement does not have the resources to deal with the legalization of recreational marijuana,” Wethersfield Police Chief James Cetran, who is also president of the Connecticut Police Chiefs Association, said.

Cetran said Connecticut police are already “overwhelmed by the opioid crisis” in the state of Connecticut and would be unable to handle marijuana legalization.

He said that if the legislature and governor insist on pushing forward with it then perhaps the Consumer Protection agency should set up a marijuana policing department. Consumer Protection already oversees the medical marijuana program.

Cetran and other opponents said another objection to legalization is the lack of an industry standard for drivers under the influence of marijuana.

Three of the marijuana bills introduced in the General Assembly so far this year seek to study or implement a DUI standard-type test for police to use to test for marijuana.

Dr. Deepak Cyril D’Souza, a research scientist and professor of psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine, said his research shows that the highest rates of cannabis use among young people are in states where marijuana is legal. He said that, in his opinion, that is particularly dangerous because “there is accumulating evidence that the brain of adolescents and young adults (mid-20s) is more vulnerable to the effects of cannabis.”

Lawmakers in favor of legalization are seeking to only give access to residents over the age of 21.

Regardless, as has been debated in previous legislative sessions, proponents and opponents trot out their own statistics and arguments when making their case.

Brian Essenter, public outreach director for Connecticut NORML, a state chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), said NORML’s research shows fewer young people smoke pot in Colorado now than before it was legalized.

He also said that NORML believes marijuana is not a gateway to harder drugs. He said when cannabis is sold in an unregulated marketplace, the dealers are more concerned about keeping customers or hooking them on more profitable drugs. He said that’s not the case in a regulated marketplace. He said children would have less access to cannabis in a regulated marketplace.

Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie photo
Bo Huhn, a spokesman for the Connecticut’s Smart Approaches for Marijuana (SAM) (Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie photo)

He added that if adults keep telling kids lies, they’re going to research it themselves.

One of the most adamant opponents is Bo Huhn, a spokesman for the Connecticut’s Smart Approaches for Marijuana (SAM), who has made repeated trips to the state Capitol over the past few years to speak against legalization.

Huhn, a Guilford resident, said his own research shows him that marijuana can be a gateway to harder drugs. He said it’s personal for him because his youngest daughter “got addicted to crack as a sophomore in high school.”

“We went through a nightmare,” Huhn said. “The impact was devastating.”

Also speaking against legalization was Julia Rubbo, a Guilford High School student.

She said she’s concerned that her peers are “so dangerously casual” about pot. “I am deeply concerned about all the people who have tried marijuana that are my age.”

While legalization seems to still be a toss-up issue in this year’s General Assembly, it is not a toss-up within the general population.

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.

Christine Stuart contributed to this story