Jack Kramer / ctnewsjunkie photo
Sen. Dennis Bradley supports legalization (Jack Kramer / ctnewsjunkie photo)

HARTFORD, CT — The Judiciary Committee approved three bills Monday that would legalize possession of cannabis for adults 21 and older and expunge prior drug convictions.

The 21-19 vote in favor of the general legalization bill came after a spirited, hour-long debate. At least three Democrats joined Republicans in opposing the bill, which now heads to the Senate.

CLICK TO VOTE ON 2019 SB 1085: An Act Concerning The Legalization Of The Retail Sale And Possession Of Cannabis And Concerning Erasure Of Criminal Records In The Case Of Convictions Based On The Possession Of A Small Amount Of Cannabis

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The Judiciary Committee vote on three cannabis bills Monday comes a week after the General Law Committee narrowly approved a separate bill that establishes a regulatory framework for production and sale.

Connecticut already has a medical marijuana program that serves more than 33,000 patients.

Proponents of legalization, like Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, believe most Connecticut residents are supportive of the effort.

Referring to recent polls that show that the majority of Connecticut residents favor legalization of recreational marijuana, Winfield, said: “the public is in agreement with us doing this.”

An August 2018 Quinnipiac University poll found 59 percent of voters support allowing adults in Connecticut to legally possess small amounts of marijuana for personal use.

Rep. Steve Stafstrom, a Bridgeport Democrat who co-chairs the committee with Winfield, said he felt it was important that the bill be voted out of committee “so that the General Assembly can have a full discussion on the issue.”

The bill didn’t pass without loud objection from opponents, many of whom adopted the phrase: “When you legalize, you normalize.”

The phrase was used by Republicans who cast nay votes and by Sen. Alex Bergstein, D-Greenwich, who is vice-chair of the committee. Bergstein said that as a parent of young children she couldn’t support the bill.

“As the mother of three teenagers, I can’t support legalization. Our kids will say, ‘If it’s legal, how can it be bad?’ Because when you legalize something, you normalize it,” Bergstein said.

Many who voted against the legalization bill said it was sending the wrong message to young people when the state was in the midst of fighting an opioid epidemic and was disregarding that epidemic to bring in more money to the cash-starved state.

“This bill is selling out our youth,” Sen. Dan Champagne, R-Vernon, said.

“There will be a cost to the state that will outweigh any financial gain,” said Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield.

Rep. Rosa Rebimbas, R-Naugatuck, added that Connecticut would be joining “a race to the bottom” by legalizing marijuana.

The negative comments didn’t sit well with Sen. Dennis Bradley, D-Bridgeport, who pointed out that a big part of the bill would also expunge prior convictions which, he and others stated, have unfairly targeted people of color.

“Marijuana is in every single community in this state,” Bradley said, adding to pretend differently is naïve. “We’re not talking about heroin or cocaine.”

CLICK TO VOTE ON 2019 HB 7372: An Act Concerning Driving While Under The Influence Of An Intoxicating Drug

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Bradley said he was upset that those speaking against the legislation weren’t calling marijuana law enforcement strategy what he said it was: “a racist initiative and we need to put an end to it.”

Some who voted in favor said they’d like to see the bill tweaked a bit as it moves forward.

“I would like to see strict levels listed on THC amounts,” Sen. Will Haskell, D-Wilton, said as an example.

CLICK TO VOTE ON 2019 SB 1089: An Act Concerning Cannabis And The Workplace

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The committee also passed two other marijuana-related bills — one that would ensure that employers have the right to mandate that marijuana could not be smoked at a workplace; and another would establish an equivalent of a DUI test for driving while under the influence of pot.

Late last week the New Hampshire House passed a legalization bill that now heads to the Granite State’s Senate. Meanwhile, a legalization bill died in the New Jersey legislature, although proponents are still hoping to resurrect it. Also, New York is still debating the legislation, as is Illinois.

In Connecticut, Gov. Ned Lamont is optimistic lawmakers will legalize recreational use.

Lamont has said it would be “irresponsible and dangerous” to leave marijuana sales to “the black market.” He says legalizing marijuana “on a carefully regulated basis is the safest way” for Connecticut to proceed.

Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont, Washington, and Washington, D.C. have already legalized recreational use of marijuana. The only one to do it legislatively was Vermont, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.