Patrons move through a line inside Fine Fettle Dispensary in Willimantic Credit: Hugh McQuaid / CTNewsJunkie
Terry Cowgill

For better or worse (better, I think), Connecticut last week entered a new phase in allowing the legal sale of a product already in wide use across the state. Or, as journalist and podcaster Brian Scott-Smith said during a segment produced on opening day Jan. 10 and posted here on CTNewsJunkie:

“The state of Connecticut made history on Jan. 10 as recreational adult-use cannabis became legal.” Cannabis users can now purchase the product, Scott-Smith added, “without having to look over their shoulder or go to another state where it was already legal.”

We were late to the legalization game and that was no accident. Neighboring Massachusetts legalized in 2016 via citizen petition. Until a couple of years ago, the only states that had legalized recreational (a.k.a. “adult-use”) cannabis had done so through ballot initiatives. I’ve long thought that was because it gave lawmakers cover. If something went wrong, they could throw their hands up and say, “Don’t blame us. The voters made us do it.”

Meanwhile, nervous lawmakers in Hartford could feel good that they were resisting legalization and standing up for the kids, though they’re in a poor position to lecture any of us on morality. The state, after all, actually owns and manages a multi-billion-dollar gambling operation called the lottery and collects slot revenues from Connecticut’s two Indian casinos. In many cases, the profits come from compulsive gamblers who can ill afford to lose the money. In addition, the state collects a substantial per-gallon alcoholic beverage tax from wholesalers, as well as the standard 6.35% tax on retail sales.

So state legislatures in neighboring Rhode Island and New York, which share our inability to place citizen initiatives on the ballot, subsequently introduced and passed legislation legalizing adult-use. Over the objections of cannaphobes, the Connecticut General Assembly saw the handwriting on the wall and passed a bill of its own in 2021. 

Medical marijuana has been legal here since 2012, though all cannabis products remain illegal on the federal level, where they are laughably classified as Schedule I narcotics along with heroin, LSD, ecstasy, quaaludes, and peyote.

The journey to legalization takes us to last Tuesday, when the first seven adult-use cannabis stores opened in Connecticut. Even those who opposed legalization would have to acknowledge that there is an upside to allowing legal sales.

The economic impact of the move is hard to forecast with any degree of certainty but a 2020 study by respected UConn economist Fred Carstensen predicted legalization could net revenues for the state of up to $1 billion over the first four years of sales, along with roughly 17,000 decent-paying jobs by year four. With slot revenues from the two Indian casinos continuing to dwindle, something’s got to give. A discretionary “sin tax” would be far better than the kinds of broad-based tax increases, imposed with little effect, during the Malloy administration and, to a lesser extent, by Gov. Ned Lamont.

Massachusetts, which has about twice our population, has netted state and local governments $4 billion in state and local revenue since recreational cannabis sales began in November 2018, reports the Boston Globe. But that success brings with it a cautionary tale. Increased competition among growers and the state’s 250 stores has caused prices and profits to drop along with sales tax revenues. So it goes without saying that states should not become too dependent on cannabis revenue.

There could be other negative impacts associated with legalization as well, but they all rest on the assumption that there will be a significant increase in consumption over pre-2023 black-market levels. The studies are ambiguous on that matter, with some concluding that post-legalization consumption rises by as much as 20%, while others found little difference in use, in part because of the “forbidden fruit effect,” which posits that anything prohibited becomes, as a result, more desirable.

There is considerable concern in the law enforcement community on the subject of driving while stoned. A Montville police sergeant Scott-Smith interviewed said his officers have participated in “statewide training for operators who are impaired by cannabis.” The science, however, remains elusive.

Traditional measures of sobriety don’t work very well in determining marijuana impairment. Field sobriety tests often fail to detect cannabis intoxication because the drug does not impair balance, reflexes and speech nearly as much as alcohol does. Breathalyzer tests are useless. Even blood tests are inconclusive because, unlike alcohol, cannabis stays in the bloodstream long after its effects have worn off. 

But there could be positives as well. Unscrupulous dealers in the underground market have been known to taint the product with other controlled substances (though rarely, if ever, fentanyl), allow it to become contaminated with mold or peddle other more dangerous drugs that resemble cannabis and mimic its effects. Conversely, these occurrences are said to be very rare in the regulated markets.

I have noticed on social media rising opposition to legalization, mostly in conservative quarters. There seems to be a denial of the reality of pot’s ubiquity even before legalization and a fear that it will become more available to teens even though, like alcohol, cannabis remains illegal for anyone under 21 to possess or use. My own children have told me that pot was readily available at their rural high school only 10 years ago. Everyone knew who was selling, so I remain skeptical that legalization will cause a ruinous spike in teen use.

Besides, if we had kept cannabis illegal, would Connecticut residents simply shrug and do without it? Of course not, they would simply drive to any of the three states at our border. As far as I’m concerned, the less time Connecticut’s cannabis users spend behind the wheel the better.

The new law will take some getting used to, but I’m convinced that it’s preferable to continuing with prohibition, which has done little or nothing to control use, and has actually encouraged criminal behavior. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime estimated in 2019 that 16.3% of the United States population uses cannabis, second only to 18.3% in Iceland, where the substance remains completely illegal. Let that sink in.

Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill lives in Lakeville, is a Substack columnist and is the retired managing editor of The Berkshire Edge in Great Barrington, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill or email him here.

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