HARTFORD, CT — The odds of the legislature voting on a recreational marijuana bill before the end of the session on June 5 aren’t good. In fact, some believe that the best shot at legalization may be taking the issue directly to the voters.
“I wouldn’t put the odds very high on us acting on it this year,” House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, said at an early morning press conference before the start of the House session on Wednesday.
Aresimowicz said he thought at this point perhaps the best course of action would be to have the issue of legalization put in front of all voters in the state in the form of a Constitutional amendment.
“It’s not the concept of legalization,” that’s the problem, Aresimowicz said, stating that if he called for an up or down vote on legalizing pot in the House, he is sure it would pass.
However, he said, as the issue of legalization has developed over the past few years the various bills calling for legalization, which all promise $100 million to $200 million in new taxes, become more complex. He said that “some people are not comfortable” with certain aspects that are sidebars in legalization bills that have been written — such as expunging past arrest records, who should receive the millions in tax receipts brought in, and the like.
In 2018, Vermont became the first state to legalize marijuana for adult use through the legislative process (rather than a ballot initiative), according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Vermont’s law went into effect July 1, 2018.
Aresimowicz and Rep. Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, noted that many other states have taken the route of allowing voters to directly vote on legalizing pot instead of taking legislative action.
One of those states is nearby Massachusetts, where voters passed a ballot initiative legalizing pot in November 2016. Actual sales began late last year.
Aresimowicz reiterated maybe Connecticut should follow suit.
“Why would you vote against letting the voters decide?” Aresimowicz said, adding that he has often said that the legislature’s “biggest strength is our biggest weakness,” stating the body has always taken a long time to weigh in on major issues. He ticked off legislation such as eliminating the death penalty and same-sex marriage as two examples of deliberative actions.
“We are the land of steady habits,” Aresimowicz said, conceding that it sometimes “puts us at a competitive disadvantage” with other states who have been quicker to act on issues such as marijuana legalization.
However, even if the issue of legalization made it to the ballot, the legislature would still be charged with coming up with the specifics of how it would work if the voters approved.
“For some of the [legislators] who struggle with the details, having the public weigh in” could be persuasive, Ritter said.
The argument of turning the issue over to the voters didn’t sit well with Rep. Vincent Candelora, R-North Branford, who has been a staunch opponent of legalization.
“Almost 10 years ago, Democrats opposed the push to amend the Constitution to give the right of petition to our taxpayers and now, when they can’t persuade a majority in the legislature to legalize pot, they are selectively seeking a constitutional amendment,” Candelora said.
“If they believe the voters should decide, I believe we should be giving that same right for voters to decide whether to toll and tax as well,” Candelora added.
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.
Gov. Ned Lamont, while stating he believes it is time that Connecticut legalize pot, primarily because neighboring states have beaten Connecticut to the punch, hasn’t lobbied heavily for legalization.