Legalization of recreational cannabis could be taken up during a special legislative session if ongoing negotiations between the governor’s office and key lawmakers do not result in a vote on the issue before the session ends on June 9.
During a press conference Tuesday, House Speaker Matt Ritter said he would be willing to return for a special legislative session on the issue if a compromise can be reached but the legislature runs out of time to take up the bill in the remaining month of its normal session.
“If we can find a path to a deal, it’s the kind of thing you could always go into overtime if you had to,” Ritter said.
With New York and New Jersey this year joining more than a dozen other states in legalizing the substance, Connecticut appeared likely to follow suit. But the issue has caused rifts between Gov. Ned Lamont, a Democrat, and some members of the legislature’s Democratic majority who say Lamont’s proposal failed to ensure communities damaged by the prohibition on cannabis get a fair stake in the new industry legalization would create.
Both sides said this week that efforts to find consensus on the issue were ongoing as the legislature headed towards the end of its session. Lamont said Monday his staff had put together a proposal for the legislature to consider and were waiting to hear back.
“It’s sitting on their desk and we’re ready for some decisions,” Lamont said.
Sen. Gary Winfield, a New Haven Democrat who is co-chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said Tuesday that proponents in the legislature hope to have their own draft within the next week to discuss with hopes of finding a compromise. In some ways, the expectation that the state may act this year complicates the process, he said.
“This year, people believe it’s going to pass so everybody’s got their perspective and thinks their perspective is important. That pulls people in 72 different directions,” he said. “You’ve got to figure out where that perfect mix is so you can have the votes to pass the thing.”
For the most part, the obstacle remains the methods and extent to which the bill will attempt to right the long-lasting impacts that the war on drugs has had in some communities. Lamont’s proposal included provisions to expunge the records of some cannabis-related criminal convictions and would create a task force to recommend policies on the fair issuance of business licenses and jobs.
Winfield said lawmakers are seeking to draw on the experiences of other states and take a more holistic approach to social equity. Even if people impacted by the prohibition are given access to the industry, many won’t have access to enough capital to start a business, he said.
“It cannot be the case that we legalize it, maybe expunge some records and move on. It also can’t be the case that we say ‘We’ll give some access to the market,’ but that access doesn’t really mean anything,” he said. “You’re not talking about a whole lot of direct jobs or opportunities for ownership, so what do you do for the communities themselves? It’s about the investment of the money itself.”
Paul Mounds, Lamont’s chief of staff, said the administration still wants to see Connecticut legalize the substance this year. But Mounds said there are many other issues competing for attention as the administration and legislature gear up for the final stretch of the session.
Both sides still have to agree on a two-year state operating budget and have been recently working to avoid a strike at state nursing homes. He said a push to legalize online gambling and sports betting will also require attention.
“We have a lot of things we need to do in the month of May in a very short session in addition to managing our COVID protocols and everything of the such,” Mounds said. “Time is of the essence… and we’re waiting to hear back from them.”
Despite that crowded agenda, Winfield said not to count the cannabis bill out yet.
“If you believe any of my stuff is dead you have not watched. It’s still active. There is still the potential it gets done,” he said. “I’ve resurrected bills on the last day of session. So keep watching. Don’t turn before the end.”