ctnewsjunkie file photo
Bo Huhn, a spokesman for the Connecticut’s Smart Approaches for Marijuana (SAM) (ctnewsjunkie file photo)

HARTFORD, CT – Opponents who have spent years fighting against the legalization of recreational marijuana in Connecticut know that 2020 may be the toughest year yet to beat back proponents of the measure.

For the past few years opponents of legalization have prevailed despite the fact that many neighboring states have gone forward with legalization, but now another major obstacle for opponents of legalization looms, Gov. Ned Lamont.

Lamont made legalizing recreational marijuana a priority this session.

News of Lamont’s position “came as a shock and disappointment” to Bo Huhn, a spokesman for the Connecticut’s Smart Approaches for Marijuana (SAM), who has made repeated trips to the state Capitol over the past few years to speak against legalization.

Huhn, a Guilford resident, said his own research shows him that marijuana can be a gateway to harder drugs. He said it’s personal for him because his youngest daughter became addicted to crack as a sophomore in high school.

Huhn added that he is doubly surprised by Lamont’s position “considering all the information that has been coming out recently about the issue of youth vaping becoming an epidemic. Legalizing marijuana certainly isn’t a step forward in addressing that issue,” Huhn said.

As part of his overall legislative proposals for 2020, Lamont is introducing “An Act Concerning Adult-Use Cannabis.”

“Prohibiting the possession and sale of cannabis has produced a thriving illicit market and staggering racial disparities in the dispensation of justice,” Lamont said. “Massachusetts, Maine, and Vermont already have some form of a market for adult-use recreational cannabis, and nearby states including New York, Rhode Island, and New Jersey are on track to legalize adult-use recreational cannabis in the near future.”

Lamont said the legislation was developed in careful partnership with the nearby states that have legalized or are close to legalizing.

Legislative leaders said they believe the votes are there this year to pass legislation, though under Lamont’s proposal sales wouldn’t start until 2022.

Huhn doesn’t believe the pitch that the states can work on a coordinated marijuana legalization agenda together.

“None of these other states are talking about protecting kids,” he said. “They just pass a bunch of toothless regulations that aren’t enforced.”

Huhn said the strategy to try and defeat proponents of legalization will be no different this year.

“All you can do is try to reach each legislator one by one, by one,” Huhn said.

He said the good news is that the issue is such a familiar one that most legislators have already contemplated the issue.

But the legislature may be a tougher sell in 2020 for opponents than it has in the past.

Immediately following Lamont’s address, House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, said legalization of cannabis is an issue that, if raised today and asked for a vote, would pass.

He said the fight is over what they’re going to do with the regulations and revenue sharing with the communities most impacted by the war on drugs.

Aresimowicz said he thinks the governor has taken a “conservative view,” and the legislature may want to move more quickly. If they do, he’s certain the governor will help.

Asked why he believes the legislators would pass a bill they have refused to pass the past several years, Aresimowicz said, “ideas change,” adding what is helping proponents argument this year is that so many neighboring states have legalized.

Senate President Martin Looney, D-New Haven, added said he hoped to “move on the proposal as quickly as we can.”

But another opponent of legalization, Dr. Deepak Cyril D’Souza, a research scientist and professor of psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine, said one point that can’t be overemphasized is the danger of not understanding that marijuana legalization doesn’t just bring in money, it costs money.

D’Souza said states that have legalized have shown an increase in motor vehicle accidents. “And who is going to pay for it (those accidents)?” D’Souza asked. “We all already know that 95 is not one of the safest highways.”

D’Souza said those costs are in addition to his scientific research that he says shows that the highest rates of cannabis use among young people are in states where marijuana is legal.

The proposal seeks to legalize it beginning at the age of 21.

Proponents argue this has nothing to do with underage use.

D’Souza said that, in his opinion, it is particularly dangerous to legalize marijuana for those so young because “there is accumulating evidence that the brain of adolescents and young adults (mid-20s) is more vulnerable to the effects of cannabis.”

His research shows that the brain is still developing to age 26, D’Souza said. “Enacting legislation that doesn’t take that aspect into consideration is going to have long-lasting implications.”

The proposed bill, Lamont said, protects public safety by increasing the number of trained drug recognition experts in state and local police forces, updating traffic safety laws, reforming the administrative process that follows an impaired driving arrest, and freeing the state’s police, prosecutors, and other public safety officials to focus on more significant crimes, according to documents.

It will also promote “social justice by automatically erasing most cannabis possession convictions and empaneling an Equity Commission to develop proposals for how the individuals and communities that have borne the brunt of the war on drugs can benefit from the creation of the legal cannabis market. Finally, it sets up a fair tax structure that will provide meaningful new state and municipal revenues.”

Huhn isn’t buying any of it.

Instead, the way Huhn looks at is those who benefit financially from marijuana legalization “have basically stampeded through the states” to get legalization bills passed “and we have to make sure that stampede doesn’t claim Connecticut as its next state.”

Last year 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.

Proponents of recreational marijuana have repeatedly argued that polls show the majority of the public in favor of legalizing marijuana.

But those arguments haven’t been successful in convincing moderate Democrat legislators and any single Republican legislator to jump over to the legalization side.