HARTFORD, CT — Connecticut lawmakers who support recreational marijuana said they want to destroy the black market for cannabis in the state and offer communities impacted by 80 years of prohibition an opportunity to get into the business.
But lawmakers admitted that the legislation they wrote to regulate commercial sales of cannabis was not perfect, especially when it comes to guaranteeing minority communities benefit from this legislation.
“Any ongoing support of the prohibition of cannabis is essentially ongoing support for racism and the disparate practices that have destroyed communities of color,” Kebra Smith-Bolden, CEO of CannaHealth in New Haven, told the General Law Committee Friday.
She said if Connecticut is going to move forward then it needs to create a regulatory structure that includes members of the communities directly impacted by the “War on Drugs.” She said because of disparate policing policies certain communities should have more applicants than others.
Jason Ortiz, executive director of CURE CT, a statewide organization focused on equity in the cannabis industry, said they support the spirit of the legislation, but believe it can be improved.
He said HB 7371 doesn’t specify residency requirements for equity applicants so it’s possible someone with a past conviction in another state could apply for an equity license in Connecticut.
He said there’s also no enforcement mechanism to support the equity initiative in the legislation.
“How do we ensure a new license holder is going to meet a 20 percent hiring requirement?” Ortiz wondered. “It’s very aspirational language, but without some sort of check or balance from the commission there’s no way to ensure that happens.”
Rep. Michael D’Agostino, D-Hamden, said he’s concerned about some of the large players in the cannabis industry who might offer an equity applicant $100,000 to sell their license to the larger company.
Ortiz suggested a watchdog agency that can oversee these equity requirements in the legislation.
“The bill doesn’t contemplate what happens if an equity applicant sells their business to an individual or entity that would not qualify as an equity applicant. It is also unclear whether or not retailers can partially own other business types,” Department of Consumer Protection Commissioner Michelle Seagull said in her testimony.
Attorney Aaron Romano, who represents the Connecticut chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), said they want to make sure communities that were harmed over the past 80 years are given preference and at the moment under HB 7371 that’s not the case.
He said maybe creating a timeframe that an equity applicant has to hold their license, and not having any caps on the number of licenses would improve the legislation.
“We know big money is involved here,” Romano said.
Of the nine recreational stores open so far in Massachusetts, all are affiliated with large medical marijuana companies, according to MassLive.com.
Daniel Glissman, an attorney with Prince Lobel who works with companies in Massachusetts, said there’s no time restriction on the sale of a license in Massachusetts.
“There’s no minimum timeline they must hold the license before they can sell it,” he said.
Massachusetts has not capped the number of licenses, but it’s still been difficult for equity applicants in that state to get a license. The obstacle for small businesses in Massachusetts has been getting local approval before they move forward with the state regulatory process.
Ortiz said the fees towns are levying on these companies is much higher than the state fees and act as a barrier to entry.
Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin testified that Hartford has already changed its zoning laws to allow dispensaries where retail is permitted and grow facilities where industrial is permitted.
Glissman said in Massachusetts some towns have banned retail locations and others have established caps on the number of facilities.
The Connecticut Department of Consumer Protection warned that giving municipalities deference will likely result in a concentration of cannabis facilities in a smaller number of towns.
Connecticut is looking to avoid such pitfalls if the prohibition on cannabis is lifted.
Under the legislation, the five-member Cannabis Commission must establish an equity applicant status for potential owners of cannabis establishments and then design a licensing application process, which will require creating different licensing fees and establishing criteria for large, medium and small cultivation centers.
The legislation envisions that the commissioners would be volunteers, but Seagull said the amount of work might be too much for unpaid, volunteers.
The Judiciary Committee also heard testimony Friday on a number of cannabis related bills, including bills that seek to expunge past marijuana convictions.
Both committees heard testimony from members of the public who are opposed to “normalizing” access to the drug. They also worried about the impact it would have on children under the age of 21.
Rep. Holly Cheeseman, R-Niantic, said if the state is going to legalize marijuana then “part of me says, by all means offer the opportunity to those who have been affected, but is that the best we can do?”
Smith-Bolden suggested some of the tax revenue from legal cannabis could be direct at things like afterschool programs in communities with few resources to provide those activities.
Senate President Martin Looney, D-New Haven, said legalization will help Connecticut’s economy.
“Colorado has issued 40,334 licenses to individuals to work directly in the cannabis industry,” Looney said. “Cannabis businesses also retain workers and utilize services from a wide variety of collateral sectors, including construction, engineering, security, legal, insurance and real estate. An economic analysis of the legal cannabis industry found that it generated $2.4 billion in overall economic activity in 2015. And this bill contains specific provisions designed to encourage small business development and promote diversity.”
Legalization is also supported by Gov. Ned Lamont.
“The governor believes the legalization bill should automatically expunge criminal charges for simple possession charges and ensure a portion of the proceeds are dedicated to correcting historical wrongs and supporting addiction services,” Maribel La Luz, Lamont’s communications director, said.