Luis Vega, owner of Nautilus Botanicals Credit: Hugh McQuaid / CTNewJunkie

Connecticut would consider easing the sentences of people convicted of cannabis crimes under a bill debated Wednesday in the legislature’s Judiciary Committee, which would also direct state prosecutors to drop ongoing cases related to recently-legalized cannabis charges.

During a morning press conference on the bill, advocates and sympathetic lawmakers said the state’s burgeoning commercial cannabis market, made possible by a 2021 law that legalized the substance, made criminal charges related to the substance unfair.

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“Across the country and here in Connecticut there remains the fundamental injustice that at the same time mostly white individuals are profiting from the sale of legal cannabis, mostly Black and brown individuals are still incarcerated for the exact same activity,” Sarah Gersten, executive director of the Last Prisoner Project, said. 

The bill raised by lawmakers on the Judiciary Committee would order sentence review hearings for residents serving time on cannabis related charges and potentially discharge them or release them on probation if good cause is shown. 

The legislation would also direct the state Division of Criminal Justice to immediately move to dismiss any charges that were no longer deemed to be crimes after the cannabis legalization law went into effect. 

Lawmakers in attendance at Wednesday’s press conference said the steps were long overdue.

“Imagine sitting in a cell and you’ve been serving five, 10, 15, 20 years for a victimless, non-violent crime such as cannabis — now to only hear that in this state people are actually making hand over fist when it comes to money,” Rep. Robyn Porter, D-New Haven, said. “We have to do what is humane, what is just and what is equitable.”

It was unclear how many people are serving time in Connecticut on charges exclusively related to cannabis crimes. The state Judicial Branch submitted testimony expressing “significant implementation concerns” about the proposal including a lack of clarity as to what exactly constitutes a “cannabis-related crime.”

Sarah Gersten, executive director of the Last Prisoner Project Credit: Hugh McQuaid / CTNewsJunkie

Proponents cast a wide net during their remarks. Rep. Anthony Nolan, D-New London, said people incarcerated for cannabis crimes should be released regardless of the amount of the substance they were charged with possessing or selling. 

“It doesn’t matter what it was, how much it was, when it was, how many police it took,” Nolan said. “Any cannabis-related crime, there should be no one incarcerated for [it] as we get rich on it and as big business continues to grow.” 

During the bill’s public hearing, Chief State’s Attorney Patrick Griffin opposed the bill, which he said was unconstitutional because it involved the Legislative Branch directing the Judicial Branch to take actions that violated the separation of powers doctrine. 

State prosecutors did not oppose the spirit of the bill, Griffin said. However he suggested the legislature take a different approach to the problem by retroactively making cannabis legal so its legality would apply before the passage of the 2021 law.

When asked directly by Rep. Steve Stafstrom, a Brideport Democrat who co-chairs the committee, Griffin acknowledged there are residents facing pending cannabis possession charges in Connecticut. 

“I would say the answer is yes, directly, to that question,” Griffin said.

“Why?” Stafstrom said.

“Again, representative, the conduct occurred before the passage of the bill,” Griffin said. “I will tell you very directly that I’ve had conversations with all 13 states attorneys that we are in agreement that what is legal today should not be penalized because it occurred prior to the passage of the bill.”

Griffin said he planned to meet with other prosecutors to craft a policy on how to address pending cannabis cases.

A cannabis advocate walks the halls of the Legislative Office Building on March 1, 2023 Credit: Hugh McQuaid / CTNewsJunkie

Advocates are also seeking changes designed to help people previously convicted of cannabis charges re-enter the workforce. Luis Vega, owner of Nautilus Botanicals, described his own difficulties finding a job after he served time on cannabis related charges.

“I couldn’t get a job at a McDonalds after I was convicted. I have a masters degree,” he said. 

Vega has since founded a business growing hemp and, after cannabis was legalized, moved into the adult-use market. He said he wanted to employ more residents who had previously been convicted of selling cannabis. Advocates refer to these individuals as part of the “legacy” cannabis community. Vega said there are thousands of knowledgeable people he would like to hire.

“Anybody who was convicted or arrested that runs around, that has something that says they have cannabis on their record– I realistically want to interview them and see where I can put them in my business,” Vega said. “Who else better to sell weed than a guy that was selling weed?”