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JONATHAN L. WHARTON

With the sudden vote in New York legalizing recreational marijuana, Connecticut is once again in the middle of a tri-state area competition over if, when and how we will allow it in our state.

Geographically, politically and financially, Massachusetts has led in recreational marijuana laws. Being the Land of Steady Habits, Connecticut remains uncertain about marijuana legalization policy next steps and we are now officially caught in the middle.

It is interesting timing that our largest neighboring state decided to take on recreational marijuana. New York’s governor is facing a political crisis over various scandals and the state’s economy has experienced a significant financial shortfall during the pandemic. The economic and political pressures of marijuana legalization from nearby Massachusetts and New Jersey have also been overwhelming. So New York officials immediately introduced and swiftly passed marijuana legalization with a law that expunges previous marijuana convictions.

While states differ on taxes and regulation, the marijuana legalization process is only in its initial policy stages in most of these states. Massachusetts already made nearly $52 million in taxes from legalized marijuana last year.  Meanwhile, New Jersey begins the administrative process for marijuana legalization by this time next year. For New York, the marijuana legalization rulemaking process will likely take a year and a half. Meanwhile, Connecticut will wait on the sidelines. 

I have said on WNPR that Connecticut would be the last state in the region to decide on marijuana legalization. We remain divided on the issue and state officials are timid about addressing it. While the majority of Democratic state lawmakers support legalizing marijuana, many Republicans and various urban Democratic lawmakers are against it. Some Connecticut suburban lawmakers also feel differently on the issue than urban lawmakers. While there appears to be a partisan divide, there’s also a generation gap about marijuana legalization. Younger officials tend to be more supportive of legalizing marijuana compared to longtime older lawmakers. 

The social stigma surrounding marijuana remains challenging for many Nutmeggers. And concerns about the federal government’s enforcement and classification of marijuana have not gone away. Criminal justice reforms about drug sentencing laws also remain an ongoing issue, especially in tri-state area cities. But Connecticut could raise some sizable tax revenue from legalizing marijuana as we now face stiff competition from several nearby states. 

For decades, Connecticut’s economy has been in dire straits. From businesses leaving the state and few businesses relocating here, it’s no secret that we have a sluggish economy. Officials need to address marijuana legalization for revenue purposes, but they also need to understand that our lackluster economy remains an ongoing issue and legalization proposals will not be a magic bullet.   

As a policy, marijuana legalization will hardly resolve our economic problems especially as nearby states raise tax revenue on recreational marijuana ahead of us. I only hope that Connecticut officials and residents recognize the larger picture for our state. In the recent past, for example, casinos and their tax revenue didn’t cure our financial and economic issues. Similarly, marijuana legalization and its tax revenue will barely address our state’s overall economy and continuous fiscal problems. 

Jonathan L. Wharton, Ph.D. is the associate dean of the School of Graduate and Professional Studies and teaches political science at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven. He is also a frequent contributor on WNPR.