You can take this one to the bank: As a class of people, politicians are hardly known for their bravery. And nowhere is that simple maxim better illustrated than in the current debate around the legalization of recreational marijuana.
So unlikely is the possibility that members of the General Assembly will pass a bill ending the prohibition on so-called adult-use cannabis, that lawmakers are mulling a constitutional amendment that would do the dirty work that the denizens of the Capitol are afraid to handle.
There is a reason why, of the 11 states that have legalized the weed for recreational use, only two (Vermont and Illinois) has done so through legislation. The others have achieved legalization through ballot initiatives.
Why, you ask? In the unlikely event that legalized marijuana triggers some sort of apocalyptic cultural decline or public health crisis, craven politicians have plausible deniability. They can simply throw their hands up and say, “Hey, the people spoke. We had nothing to do with it.”
Connecticut has no such mechanism for presenting voters with ballot questions or holding referendums. So what is a legalization advocate to do? According to Ballotpedia, the only way to offer a ballot proposition in Connecticut is through a legislatively referred constitutional amendment.
In other words, the legislature, in its infinite wisdom, must vote to allow us to weigh in on changing the state constitution. That might have a chance because legislators who oppose legalization – a coalition of mostly Republicans, with some Democrats – would be put in the awkward position of saying they don’t want to put this matter before the people because lawmakers know better.
We now stand at a point where polls consistently show that Americans want legalization. According to the Pew Research Center, “two-thirds of Americans say the use of marijuana should be legal, reflecting a steady increase over the past decade.”
The sale and use of recreational cannabis products was legalized in 2016 through a ballot initiative in Massachusetts. My day job is in Great Barrington, Mass., in the Berkshires. I’d say a third of the vehicles I see in the parking lot of Theory Wellness, Berkshire County’s first adult-use store, are from Connecticut.
Unlike Connecticut, Massachusetts has local-option sales taxes. If they choose to do so, cities and towns can levy additional sales taxes on meals and hotel rooms. The state collects the tax and returns it to the towns on a quarterly basis. After the state Cannabis Control Control Commission was formed, municipalities were given the green light to impose a sales tax of up to 3% on recreational cannabis sales as well. As part of the host community agreement, towns may also negotiate an additional community impact fee of up 3% of the store’s gross sales.
Great Barrington’s combined revenues from the first six months of Theory’s sales after it opened on Jan. 11, 2019, amounted to nearly $1 million. The figures for the next three months alone were almost $775,000 (the figures from the last three months of 2019 are not yet available). In other words, the town of 7,000 people, with an annual budget of only about $28 million, is on a track to collect revenues amounting to almost 10% of its annual operating budget.
I’ve said it before, but if Connecticut’s legislature would get its act together and let towns enact their own sales taxes, they could raise money for things like infrastructure improvements, or use sales tax revenue to relieve their heavy reliance on property taxes that are some of the highest in the nation.
I understand the concerns of those who don’t want to normalize cannabis and make it more available to young people especially. But the buying age is 21 and, while cannabis is hardly a harmless drug, it is far less dangerous than alcohol – both to the user and to those who share the road with impaired drivers.
Neighboring states are moving quickly to legalize weed. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has vowed to legalize cannabis this year. Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo has included a legalization plan in her budget proposal. Both plans have a good chance of passing. And it stands to reason that cannabis consumption will not be lower in Connecticut than in neighboring states simply because we refuse to legalize it. Nutmeggers can simply arm themselves with cash, get into their cars and take a road trip to Northampton or Leicester. Their money and taxes, of course, will be spent elsewhere.
But canna-phobic lawmakers in Hartford can feel good that they’re resisting legalization and standing up for the kids. Meanwhile, they’re in a poor position to lecture any of us on morality. The state, after all, operates the lottery and collects slot revenues from Connecticut’s two Indian casinos – in most cases, from people who can ill afford to lose the money.
Connecticut is nonetheless in a good position here. We can learn from the mistakes that were made in early-legal states like Colorado, Washington, and Massachusetts
It’s unclear whether a constitutional convention has a chance of passing in the General Assembly in the upcoming session. State Rep. Vincent Candelora, R-North Branford, doesn’t think so. But he’s been a longtime foe of legalization, which according to estimates, could bring in hundreds of millions in revenue to the state. Methinks, however, that Mr. Candelora will be the first to object to having his taxes raised by the same amount.
Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill lives in Lakeville, blogs at CTDevilsAdvocate.com and is managing editor of The Berkshire Edge in Great Barrington, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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