Cannabis advocates in Hartford on April 20, 2022 Credit: Hugh McQuaid / CTNewsJunkie

Lawmakers in the House voted Tuesday to rein in cannabis bazaars and restrict cannabis billboard advertisements through a reworked bill, modified to address objections from advocates who worried the bill would ban gifting of the substance.

The House voted 98 to 48 Tuesday afternoon on a course correction to last year’s bill legalizing recreational of cannabis. Among the changes in the legislation is a provision aimed at stamping out events called bazaars. 

Rep. Michael D’Agostino, a Hamden Democrat who co-chairs the General Law Committee, said lawmakers on both sides of the aisle had reported concerns about cannabis bazaars sprouting up in their districts. 

“It’s where people go in, they pay a cover charge or they can buy a t-shirt and get an ounce of cannabis,” D’Agostino said. “It’s a barter system, a barter exchange marketplace that’s set up and it’s caused by a loophole in our laws that allows the gifting of cannabis.”

Policymakers worried those barter events circumvented the regulation, revenue and equity provisions baked into Connecticut’s legalization law. However, when the General Law Committee raised their corrections for a public hearing in March, they were met with pushback from cannabis advocates, who called the bill a draconian attempt to re-criminalize the plant. 

D’Agostino sought to stem those concerns Tuesday.

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“I want to be very clear about this because I know members have been contacted by some advocates: this amendment does not ban gifting of cannabis,” he said, reading language of the bill explicitly stating it did not prohibit gifting between people with a social relationship as long as it was not a commercial transaction.

“You can gift to your friends and relatives. You can host a brownie party at your house if you want to, Mr. Speaker, I know you do,” he said. “You can do that before this bill. You can do that after this bill passed.”

The clarification may not appease every advocate. Several residents spoke at the hearing in defense of the cannabis bazaar events, which the bill still seeks to prohibit. More than one speaker praised the events for their sense of community and generosity. 

D’Agostino acknowledged those arguments and said criminal penalties included in earlier versions of the bill had been removed. He left the door open for later legislative actions on above-board bazaars.

“We are committed to looking at that and making sure that there’s maybe a way we can do this down the road in a regulated structure because I don’t want to short-change the good things I’ve heard about that,” he said, “but for right now, those bazaars are a way around the carefully-crafted regulated marketplace.”

Rep. Mike D’Agostino, D-Hamden

The bill makes other changes, including restrictions on where and when cannabis can be advertised in Connecticut. For instance, it prohibits advertising within 1,500 yards of a school or church. In a bid to curb advertisements from out of state, the bill requires that anyone advertising cannabis in Connecticut be legally allowed to sell it in the state.

Republicans lawmakers endorsed elements of the bill even as they re-stated their opposition to last year’s legalization law. 

“Many of us who drive along the major thoroughfares thought [the advertising] was extreme and it overdid it,” Rep. David Rutigliano, R-Trumbull, said. “This bill really does speak to it. We’re sort of tamping down on that. We’re working on trying to get some of the out-of-state people who are not under the control of the Connecticut [Consumer Protection Department] to comply.”

House Minority Leader Vincent Candelora said he appreciated provisions of the bill but expected more changes would be needed as the recreational law continues to take effect. 

“I appreciate what we’ve done for the billboard component and I imagine that we will be back here next year trying to deal with the other ramifications that commercialization has hit,” Candelora said. “We haven’t even begun to see the impact of this.”

Another element expands Connecticut medical marijuana program by giving physicians assistants the authority to prescribe cannabis, bringing it in line with other medications. Another provision eliminates registration and renewal fees associated with the medical program beginning in 2024.