Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie
Rep. Juan Candelaria, D-New Haven, speaks in support (Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie)

HARTFORD, CT — One legislative committee took the first step toward legalizing cannabis in Connecticut by approving a bill that creates a regulatory structure and gives equity opportunities to those impacted by the War on Drugs.

The committee voted 10-8 in favor of the bill Monday.

The legislation would establish a Cannabis Commission inside the Department of Consumer Protection along with regulations for growers, manufacturers, and retailers, and would require the commission to allow those disproportionately harmed by cannabis prohibition and enforcement to apply for a license three months before other applicants.

CLICK TO VOTE ON 2019 HB 7371: An Act Concerning The Retail Sale Of Cannabis

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Sen. Doug McCrory, D-Hartford, said the bill doesn’t go far enough and voted against the legislation.

He said the “War on Drugs” was racist in its intent.

“My point is we have a policy that’s left over from the Jim Crow era. It’s probably the last one,” McCrory said.

He said he isn’t going to argue about the medical data and whether cannabis is harmful, a focus of many Republicans on the committee.

McCrory said he won’t support a bill in which Connecticut’s law is anything less than the gold standard of equity for those whose lives have been most impact by racially disparate enforcement policies. He said Connecticut has a chance to stand up for the past 80 years of prohibition that has harmed his community.

Sen. Kevin Witkos, R-Canton, said the communities most impacted by marijuana arrests, possession and sale were Clinton, New Haven, Meriden, and Granby.

“It is not communities that some people think are disproportionately harmed by arrests for marijuana,” Witkos said.

An equity applicant under the legislation is defined as “individuals or communities disproportionately impacted by high rates of arrest and conviction, as well as individuals who can demonstrate, via affidavit and other documentation as the commission may require, (A) requisite experience with cannabis cultivation, distribution or the sale or manufacture of cannabis products.”

Witkos said that prioritizes people who have been breaking the law over law abiding citizens.

Rep. Juan Candelaria, D-New Haven, said not to offer these entrepreneurs in the blackmarket a chance to become legal “is a slap on the face.”

He said it’s not so much about equity, “but it’s about the human piece of making these individuals who have been wronged by life and society to say ‘we’re going to give you an opportunity’.”

Rep. Bobby Gibson, D-Bloomfield, said minority communities most impacted by this have to have a seat at the table.

“This bill here is a step in the right direction,” Gibson said.

Rep. David Rutigliano, R-Trumbull, said those opposed to the bill are opposed to the commercialization of cannabis.

He said someone of his political persuasion could be in favor of decriminalizing it and allowing people to grow their own at home. But allowing these big companies to come in is a mistake, Rutigliano said.

Rep. Michael D’Agostino, D-Hamden, said they went with this approach because he doesn’t believe there is public support or legislative support for an unregulated marketplace.

He said they are still studying some “home grow” models and “microbusiness” opportunities.

Rep. Craig Ackert, R-Coventry, said he’s not voting on the legislation based on race, but the health of the community.

Rep. Tony D’Amelio, R-Waterbury, said pot is being used everywhere in his community and he’s surprised at who supports legalization and who doesn’t.

“I appreciate that we’re trying to regulate it, but I’m not there yet,” D’Amelio said.

He said he thinks legal weed will be too costly when it’s legal and that will only increase the black market, which will offer discounts.

Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, said if you make something legal that’s illegal, those people might give it a try because it’s not illegal anymore.

“We don’t want to open the barn doors and allow the horses to roam free,” Kissel said.

Lawmakers on both sides of the issue used statistics from Colorado, the first state to legalize marijuana, to support their arguments.

Rep. Vincent Candelora, R-North Branford, said he can’t image how legalization helps Connecticut.

He said former U.S. Speaker of the House John Boehner is investing in a holding company that invests in a Connecticut medical marijuana dispensary, “not because it’s good public policy but because there’s a lot of money to be made.”

That money is being made at the expense of our youth and our adults, according to Candelora.

There are at least four other bills that deal with portions of the legalization debate.

Meanwhile, the committee passed another bill that would allow opioid use disorder to become a condition for its medical marijuana program.

CLICK TO VOTE ON 2019 HB 7287: An Act Concerning Revisions To The Medical Marijuana Program

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The bill would also eliminate the $25 registration fee.

Last summer, the Board of Physicians that oversees Connecticut’s medical marijuana program, voted against adding opioid use disorder to the list of qualifying conditions.