christine stuart / ctnewsjunkie
Sen. Gary Winfield co-chairs the Judiciary Committee on legalizing cannabis. It was the only item on the agenda. (christine stuart / ctnewsjunkie)

HARTFORD, CT — Proponents of legalizing recreational marijuana Monday pushed hard to make the case that the time has come for legalization not as a money grab but as a way to fight back against the black market.

Those proponents, including most of the heavy-hitters on Gov. Ned Lamont’s staff, including the governor himself, made their case to the legislature’s Judiciary Committee at a public hearing on Lamont’s bill.

Lamont introduced the bill last month as part of his legislative agenda and it was the only bill on the Judiciary Committee’ public hearing agenda Monday.

“Prohibiting the possession and sale of cannabis has produced a significant illicit market and staggering racial disparities in the dispensation of justice within our state,” Lamont said in written testimony.

He also pointed out that Massachusetts, Maine, and Vermont have already legalized it, and nearby states including New York, Rhode Island, and New Jersey are on track to legalize it.

“We can no longer stick our heads in the sand,” the governor said. “Cannabis currently, and will be increasingly, available to residents of Connecticut. While I do not believe that cannabis is a riskless drug, I do believe our state is better off developing a well-regulated market for cannabis that continues to rely on the black market.”

Lamont said the legislation was developed in careful partnership with the nearby states that have legalized or are close to legalizing. He said his administration doesn’t not view legalization as a money-making enterprise, but instead a move that allows Connecticut to be competitive in the industry.

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.

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

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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.”

The issue of erasing most cannabis possession convictions drew a lot of testimony at Monday’s public hearing. Most of Lamont’s top staff made pitches for legalization to the committee.

Lamont adviser, Jonathan Harris, repeated Lamont’s mantra that “times have changed, we can’t stick our heads in the sand.”

“With or without legalization cannabis will be increasingly available to residents of Connecticut,” Harris said.

Harris said the state can build off what he termed the highly successful medical marijuana program in the state, which started in 2014 and now has more than 40,000 patients.

Under Secretary of Criminal Justice for the state Office of Policy and Management Marc Pelka noted that currently most marijuana convictions remain on a person’s record indefinitely, which he said can mean a lifetime of someone convicted being in the position of explaining one arrest while looking for employment, housing and other opportunities.

“In other words that conviction can remain on your record 110 years after your date of birth,” Pelka said. “That conviction remains on your record after you are buried.”

Pelka said that Connecticut and other states with similar thinking about prior cannabis convictions are more and more turning to automatic erasure systems as a solution.

Rep. Rosa Rebimbas, R-Nauguatuck, said she had some concerns about a system that has automatic expungement of records as part of its language.

Rebimbas said there is something to be said for a system that forces someone to apply for his or her to be erased.

“You are redeeming yourself by requesting a pardon,” Rebimbas said.

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 is in favor of legalizing marijuana. But that argument hasn’t been successful in convincing moderate Democrat legislators and any single Republican legislator to jump over to the legalization side.

The Connecticut Police Chiefs Association opposed the bill saying that there is not a quality road side test of motorists under the influence of cannabinoids.

“There is presently no legal device in which to rest such operators,” the association said in their written testimony.

The legislation introduced by Lamont would also create an equity commission that would distribute some of the tax revenue to the communities most impacted by the “War on Drugs.”

Lamont’s position has received support so far.

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.

Senate President Martin Looney, D-New Haven, 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 his scientific research shows that the highest rates of cannabis use among young people are in states where marijuana is legal.

Proponents argue this has nothing to do with underage use.

Before Monday morning’s hearing, a large group of politicians, clergy and legalization advocates held a press conference pushing for legalization.

Among them was Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin, who said he supports legalization.

Any legislation legalizing cannabis must put a strong emphasis on equity and opportunity for communities that have borne a disproportionate burden of the war on drugs, and this legislation establishes a framework to do that,” Bronin said. “With multiple states in New England already regulating legal cannabis, it’s time for Connecticut to move forward with a responsible regime for legalization and regulation.”

The Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation said in written testimony that they are not advocating for or against legalization, but if the legislature does pass legislation then they would like to be allowed to enter into an agreement with the state regarding regulation, production and sale of cannabis.