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

A group of Stamford residents asking a court to strike down Connecticut’s legal cannabis law described the policy’s social equity provisions as discriminatory and “riddled” with racial distinctions, in a court document filed this week. 

A lawyer for the Stamford Neighborhoods Coalition and a handful of individual plaintiffs made the argument Monday in response to a motion to dismiss the case filed by the city’s corporation counsel in September. 

The group, represented by attorney David Herz, is seeking an injunction to prohibit the operation of cannabis businesses under Connecticut’s 2021 law, arguing in part that the policy is preempted by the federal Controlled Substances Act.

However, the plaintiffs have also taken exception to elements of the law aimed at ensuring the new commercial market benefited the communities most impacted by the historic enforcement of drug prohibitions.

The group pointed to a June U.S. Supreme Court ruling, which struck down as unconstitutional the use of affirmative action in college admissions. The policy had previously been used by colleges and universities to consider race as a factor in which students are admitted. 

The high court’s majority opinion, written by Chief Justice John Roberts, concluded that acceptance of “race-based state action” ought to be rare. However, it was not rare, Hertz wrote, in Connecticut’s legal cannabis law.

“The Responsible and Equitable Regulation of Adult-Use Cannabis Act… is so riddled with race that it is an affront to all citizens,” he wrote. “Plaintiffs are burdened (through their taxes) with the cost of administering this insult to Federal Law. The law discriminates racially: there is no compelling government interest, narrowly tailored, as strict scrutiny requires.”

Connecticut policymakers spent considerable time and energy attempting to ensure that locals hailing from the largely Black and brown cities most ravaged by the longstanding war on drugs get a share of the new cannabis market. 

The law reserved half of cannabis business licenses for operations owned or partially owned by residents from certain disproportionately impacted neighborhoods and created a state Social Equity Council to oversee the issuance of licenses. 

Although existing medical marijuana producers have largely beat equity applicants to Connecticut’s new commercial market, proponents of the law have hailed its social equity provisions as an attempt to address injustices of the past. 

“We’ve existed under a legal scheme where we have laws that are just not just,” Sen. Gary Winfield, one of the law’s architects, said at a bill-signing ceremony in 2021. “I think what the state of Connecticut did by focusing on that … is to deal with the issues of the past.”

The Stamford lawsuit has been directed at Mayor Caroline Simmons and the city’s Zoning Board, which the plaintiffs argue includes members whose terms have expired. In September, Herz withdrew one plaintiff, Brooke Nilsen, from the case after she advised him she had not intended to be part of the lawsuit. 

The city has responded to the complaint by challenging the plaintiffs’ standing and characterizing the lawsuit as “vague and unsubstantiated assertions.” 

“Unfounded concerns and worries do not result in classical aggrievement and ‘mere generalizations and fears do not prove that an appellant is an aggrieved person,’” Cynthia Anger, Stamford assistant corporation counsel, wrote in a motion to dismiss last month. 

In this week’s response, Herz characterized the cannabis law as a “scheme” and argued it may make state and city officials who encourage cannabis businesses subject to criminal racketeering charges. 

“This isn’t only illegal. It is defiant,” he wrote. “Every act a public servant takes pursuant to this scheme is a violation of the oath of office.”