Gov. Ned Lamont’s administration began an all-day hearing of its cannabis legalization bill on the defensive Friday after enduring a broadside attack from fellow Democrats who say the bill lacks adequate equity measures.
“There’s been a lot of chatter that’s been outside the legislative process to put characterization on the governor,” Paul Mounds, the governor’s chief of staff, told the Judiciary Committee. “This is a bill where if individuals, legislators, caucus leaders and others feel needs to be modified or changed, we are all ears.”
Mounds was likely referring to the morning press conference where equity advocates and several Democratic lawmakers assailed Lamont’s proposal to legalize the adult use of cannabis. They outlined a number of concerns with the bill, but most were rooted in their contention that it fails to rectify decades of harm caused by the war on drugs in cities and communities of color.
The governor’s bill would allow cannabis sales as of May 2022. It would legalize possession of up to 1.5 ounces and reduce penalties for exceeding that amount. The legislation would clear the records of some minor cannabis possession convictions, automatically expunging records of possession convictions before Oct. 1, 2015. Those convicted later would be required to ask a court to erase them.
Critics say the proposal does not give the communities most damaged by the prohibition a fair shot at the budding new market that legalization would create.
“There really aren’t too many opportunities in government that come along where you’re really going to be essentially creating an entirely new market. The reality is, if we don’t get this right and create access, whether capital for entrepreneurs to start their businesses, to create a level playing field … this is going to take off and it’s going to be near impossible to catch up,” said Sen. Jorge Cabrera, D-Hamden.
Before that hearing began, progressive advocates were lobbying support for a different proposal co-sponsored by Rep. Robyn Porter, D-New Haven. The bill includes provisions ensuring the ability of workers in the new industry to unionize and creating a workforce development pipeline for people with marijuana-related convictions.
“This bill really, truly, thoroughly does an accounting of the damage done by the war on — you know, what some people call it — the war on drugs, I call it the war on Black, Brown and poor people. It uses that as it determines how reinvestment must look in order to be most effective,” Porter said Friday.
During the hearing, Jonathan Harris, a former legislator and consumer protection commissioner now advising the governor on the issue, said the administration was not necessarily opposed to the concepts raised by Porter and other advocates.
“There are people out there that are saying that these are competing, conflicting bills. They’re actually complimentary,” Harris said.
But advocates worry that Lamont’s proposal puts potential new business owners at a disadvantage in that it anticipates a head start for the four cannabis growing operations already approved to produce the plant under the medical marijuana program Connecticut approved in 2012.
The governor’s bill would create an equity task force to address some of the related concerns but on Friday, Consumer Protection Commissioner Michelle Seagull acknowledged there are fiscal barriers to entry.
“I’m not going to dispute you need a lot of access to capital to get into this program,” she said.
During the hearing, lawmakers and members of the public challenged the administration’s decision not to legalize home cultivation of the cannabis plant as part of its proposal. Instead, the bill would reduce penalties for growing the substance and order the Consumer Protection Department to conduct a study on home growth. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle questioned the call.
“I keep hearing the word ‘equity’,” said Sen. Dan Champagne, a Vernon Republican who said he did not support legalization. “If we’re legalizing this, for somebody to grow at home, boy, that would create equity across because now people would be able to afford it.”
Members of the public also told lawmakers they would like the ability to grow the plant at home. Bernice Wright, a Bridgeport resident who has lupus, said Connecticut’s medical marijuana program had enabled her to forgo medication she once took to control her symptoms. Participating in the hearing online from her home, Wright showed lawmakers bags full of medicine she no longer needed. The ability to grow cannabis at home would save her money, she said.
“It could run us over $6,000 a year just on medical marijuana. So to be able to have the ability to grow at home will be tremendous. It will cut down a lot of the cost,” she said.
Mounds, Lamont’s chief of staff, said the governor was not yet comfortable with the idea of home cultivation. Mohit Agrawal, a deputy policy director for the administration, said it posed regulatory challenges.
“We need to make sure we’re doing this market safely and, on home-grow, that’s something we’re not able to do at this time. It’s something we think has negative public policy consequences but it is something that is under further review,” Agrawal said.
In general, Mounds characterized Lamont’s proposal as a work in progress that was open to change as it continues through the legislative process. But he said it was important that Connecticut take action on the issue.
“The real reason is to right wrongs. What cannabis and the war on drugs has done to our communities is unconscionable,” Mounds said.