Gov. Ned Lamont’s proposal to legalize recreational cannabis cleared the legislature’s Judiciary Committee in a close vote Tuesday as lawmakers called the more than 200-page bill a work in progress.
The panel voted 22 to 16 to advance the bill before its Friday deadline. Republicans voted against the measure along with a handful of Democrats including: Sen. Saud Anwar, D-South Windsor, Rep. Daniel Fox, D-Stamford, and Sen. Alex Kasser, D-Greenwich.
The proposal is one of two prominent legalization bills under consideration by Connecticut lawmakers this year and its advancement Tuesday comes a week after neighboring New York legalized the substance. The committee’s vote is a reminder that the concept remains controversial in the legislature while most of Connecticut’s neighbors have permitted sale of the drug.
“This is a drug that is widely-believed to be less addictive and less harmful to the body than many other drugs that we already legalize and regulate here in the state of Connecticut including tobacco and alcohol,” Rep. Steve Stafstrom said at the outset of an hour-long debate.
The bill has grown considerably since its February public hearing, when some social equity advocates claimed it failed to adequately address the people and communities that have been most adversely impacted by the longtime prohibition of cannabis.
Stafstrom, a Bridgeport Democrat who is co-chairman of the committee, said many of the panel’s changes were steps towards addressing those concerns.
However, the changes to the bill would not allow widespread home growth of cannabis plants, as many advocates have called for. But it would permit patients who participate in Connecticut’s medical marijuana program to grow up to six plants at home, beginning in May of 2022.
The bill’s new language makes recommendations for how cannabis-related revenues would be spent. Fifty-five percent would go toward social equity efforts, 15% would be spent on prevention and recovery services, and 30% would go to the state general fund.
The changes also attempt to flesh out a “social equity council,” which will seek to ensure that cannabis business licenses and jobs are available to the communities damaged by the war on drugs. It requires that only social equity applicants and existing medical marijauna establishments can open new cannabis businesses until 2024, Stafstrom said.
New businesses would be required to allow their workers to unionize. And the bill creates a training pipeline to help people from affected communities get jobs in the new industry.
Many of the new provisions are similar in concept to another legalization proposal, which has advanced out of the legislature’s Labor and Public Employees Committee. Some advocates have framed the two bills as competing proposals.
Sen. Gary Winfield, a New Haven Democrat who is co-chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said he supported both proposals. Some form of legalization had to come out of the committee with purview over criminal justice matters if elements of the labor-focused bill were to be implemented, he said.
“If you are thinking you want to do the equity pieces then you need to have a legalized cannabis scheme here in the state of Connecticut,” he said.
Winfield said it was important that the state addressed the communities that were targeted by the war on drugs.
“If we ignore that then we’ve not done our due diligence and I think what we’re doing between this bill, that other bill, and the conversation that is to come, is trying to reckon with all of those things and deal with the realities in front of us,” he said.
Committee members who spoke against the bill pointed to the federal government’s ongoing prohibition of the drug as well as the impact they feared legalization in Connecticut could have on minors. Rep. Kimberly Fiorello, R-Greenwich, spoke against the equity provisions, which she said were unrealistic.
“I think that that is a state of the world. Nothing is equal. I find this kind of language in many, many bills coming before the body very problematic. Bills can’t do this. It’s not possible. If we want to legalize marijuana, then legalize marijaua. But this aspiration is misguided,” she said. “I don’t know how you legislate equality, equity and expect the laws to do all this.
Stafstrom told Fiorello he could not disagree more with her comments.
“Frankly that is one of the reasons I stand firmly in support of the effort to end prohibition of cannabis is to right some of those historical wrongs. I would be remiss if I didn’t take the opportunity to — in the strongest possible terms and folks know I don’t normally do this on this committee — but I cannot associate myself with the remarks you just made,” Stafstrom said.