HARTFORD, CT – Despite the obvious hurdles of legislating in an election year, Gov. Ned Lamont’s administration is looking to legalize adult sales of marijuana.
A senior administration official said they are in the process of taking three bills and amendments that failed last year and combining them into one omnibus proposal that would include regulation, expungement of criminal records, an equity commission, and taxation.
Last year, the three different bills to legalize, regulate, and tax cannabis passed out of committee, but none of them received a vote in the House or the Senate. At the end of the session, lawmakers who supported legalization were ready to try a different path — a constitutional amendment.
It’s a path some lawmakers are considering again this year because they doubt Lamont’s ability to pull off a legislative victory on legalization.
“We need to show the public that we want to get this done,” Rep. Josh Elliott, D-Hamden, said. “At least a constitutional amendment would be forward movement.”
Elliott acknowledged that a constitutional amendment wasn’t ideal because it would take until 2024 for sales to start in Connecticut. However, the upside in an election year would be asking lawmakers only to vote on giving the public a chance to weigh in on the issue, which gives Elliott hope that it’s a winning path.
Connecticut doesn’t have ballot initiative and referendum, which is how legalization efforts moved forward in most other states.
The administration is hoping to change Elliott’s mind.
“The administration doesn’t believe the Connecticut Constitution is the proper venue for these kinds of policy decisions,” Max Reiss, a spokesman for Lamont, said. “Making changes in statute is the best venue for the path to the legalization of marijuana for adult use.”
Senate President Martin Looney, D-New Haven, said he’s heard the governor would support legalization.
“I think its time has come,” Looney said. “Our neighboring states are all doing it or all contemplating it.”
He said he thinks it happens faster in states with ballot initiative and referendum than in states where it needs to be legislated because “opponents “may have a stronger hand in that setting.”
Looney said he’s hopeful they can get it done this year, but it’s important to propose it again to get it moving immediately and shorten the time between proposal and actual passage.
Steven Hawkins, executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project, said passage of legalization in Connecticut this year would come at the right point in terms of development of the market for the cannabis industry.
He said public support is 2-to-1 in favor of legalization and there are six states looking at ballot initiatives while New York and Connecticut are looking at legislative action.
Illinois was the most recent state to legalize marijuana through legislation.
Hawkins said Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker shaped the bill, but brought together all the various interests to have a say in the product.
Illinois also created some good equity provisions to help communities most affected by the war on drugs benefit from legalization, Hawkins said.
In addition to erasing the criminal records of hundreds of thousands of people with low-level marijuana arrests, the Illinois law gives inner-city residents impacted by the war on drugs a chance to get involved in the industry, and invests 25% of the revenue back into the affected communities.
The proposal being contemplated by the Lamont administration also would seek to give revenue back to impacted communities and contemplates how to make sure individuals affected by the war on drugs get a chance to be involved in the new, legal industry.
“Every state is going to have its nuances, but we don’t have to keep reinventing the wheel,” Hawkins said. “If the 5th largest state economy in the country with one of the largest dense metropolitan areas in the country can figure this out, it can be done.”
In Connecticut, there doesn’t seem to be any Republican support for the issue.
Rep. Vincent Candelora, R-North Branford, said the marijuana issue has been around since former Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s time in office.
“I don’t think the votes are there,” Candelora said.
He said he doubts either legalization or a constitutional amendment has enough support to pass.