Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie photo
Pro-cannabis press conference (Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie photo)

HARTFORD, CT — The cannabis debate is ablaze at the state Capitol as lawmakers consider an amendment that would help high unemployment and high poverty areas reap the benefits of the industry.

HB 7371 would create a system to regulate the retail sale of marijuana. The new amendment that was to be pitched at a closed-door meeting Wednesday would define so-called equity applicants who would be able to apply for a license to sell or grow marijuana before any other applicant would now be defined based on census tract data and poverty, as opposed to arrest rates.

“We still have the requirements that if you have been arrested or if you have a family member that has been arrested for possession, cultivation, use, distribution, etcetera, that qualifies you as an equity applicant,” Rep. Michael D’Agostino, D-Hamden, said. “In addition to that, if you are from an under served area as defined by this data, you also can qualify as an equity applicant.”

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

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D’Agostino, co-chair of the General Law Committee that proposed the amendment, said that these changes would not mean equities would be given out as a “blank check” for a city but rather as a highly targeted, data-driven analysis of specific neighborhoods that could benefit from marijuana retail.

“This is data-driven but it also gets at the core issue here which is getting at communities that have been not only under served but discriminated against by the war on drugs for decades,” D’Agostino said.

D’Agostino affirmed that equity applicants could not be determined by race because of the unconstitutionality of giving a government benefit to a specific racial group, but at a Capitol news briefing, local lawmakers and cannabis supporters acknowledged how marijuana laws have unfairly targeted the black community in the past.

“Legalization is about so much more than much needed revenue for this state,” Lindsay Farrell, executive director of Connecticut Working Families Party, said at a press conference Wednesday. “The so-called war on drugs has done exactly what it was intended to do — devastate individuals and communities of color, feed the prison-industrial complex, and deepen racial and class divisions in this country.”

Farrell called for legislation that not only legalizes marijuana, but also gives back to the communities ravaged by the war on drugs.

“It is incumbent on this legislature to ensure that legalization doesn’t just enrich a handful of corporations. Rather, legalization must be part of a bigger set of programs to repair the damage done to black and brown communities,” Farrell said. “That means prioritizing ex-offenders for ownerships and jobs in this new industry.”

D’Agostino said the second part of the general law bill, besides equities, is regulation. He said regulations for recreational marijuana should be similar to those covering medical marijuana.

“We’re actually using the regulatory process that we’ve already got — this is what we are talking about replicating for the recreational program,” D’Agostino said. “If you’re going to have recreational and medical, you have to have a clear division between the two. We’re talking about child-safety packaging, warning labels, handouts. You name it, it’s all in there.

The bill establishes minimum health, safety, and security requirements for retailers, manufacturers and producers such as the prohibition of packaging that appeals to children, requirements for cannabis to be sold with a warning label, and demands that all edible cannabis must not include more than 5mg of THC per serving.

The bill also includes a list of requirements which the legislature will vote on in the 2020 session.

If all goes as planned, D’Agostino said Connecticut could see marijuana sales in the summer of 2020.

Rep. Vincent Candelora, R-North Branford, who opposes legalization, said the bill changes being contemplated don’t seem to be about public health issues, but how they get to a majority vote in the House and the Senate.

“They want to pick who the winner is going to be to grow marijuana in the state of Connecticut,” Candelora said.

He said the bill “favors convicted criminals and people who live in poorer communities.”

The bill will be caucused Wednesday evening by the House. It is unclear whether these changes will be enough to sway the Democrats who are currently undecided into voting for it.

While the equities and regulation side of the legislation are nearing completion, it still has to be married with the Finance, Revenue, and Bonding bill before the end of the legislative session on June 5.

“We’ve got our bill, the judiciary pieces that are out there, the finance piece, the goal of all the pieces being ready to be married together is there,” D’Agostino said. “We want to get more feedback, tweak it further and make sure we address everyone.”

Kebra Smith-Bolden, CEO of CannaHealth in New Haven, said moving forward with legalization is in Connecticut’s best interest.

“Cannabis is much safer than alcohol,” Smith-Bolden said. “We should really look at moving forward this year.”