CT: Assembly Considers Pot Legalization Bills

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The Connecticut General Assembly has held four hearings over the last three weeks on proposed legislation to legalize recreational marijuana, though time may be running short in Hartford as a legislative deadline approaches.

The Appropriations Committee held a hearing on a legalization bill last Thursday, and the Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee on Tuesday considered a bill that would allow the state to levy taxes on marijuana should it be legalized. Before that, the General Law Committee and the Judiciary Committee each held a hearing on seperate bills that would also legalize marijuana. The General Law Committee rejected its measure in a 6–11 vote while the Judiciary Committee will not vote on its bill this session. The two committees currently considering their respective bills now have a few more days to vote on their proposals before the deadline for forwarding legislation to the entire Assembly, which votes only on bills that have cleared committee.

The four hearings featured people from an array of backgrounds, varying in expertise and with a range of opinions. There were doctors, advocates, lawyers, industry leaders, community prevention specialists and ordinary citizens.

With no clear consensus among the testifiers, state Rep. Melissa Ziobron, R-East Hampton, was visibly vexed at one point by a hail of competing statistics from both sides.

“There are clearly two camps here, and each of them pull out studies to suit their narratives,” Ziobron said. “I just want to state on the record that there are lots of studies people can throw around.”

Ziobron, who supports marijuana legalization, went on to highlight that the bill would legalize marijuana use only for people over the age of 21 and would strengthen underage marijuana enforcement in response to arguments that legalization would encourage marijuana use among teenagers.

The bill’s opponents were less convinced. William Huhn, spokesman for CT Smart Approaches to Marijuana, said that legalization would give teenagers the false impression that it is safe and acceptable to use marijuana, contributing to higher abuse rates. Yale psychiatry professor Deepak D’Souza also testified against the legislation, saying that marijuana use damages adolescent brains, including adversely affecting memory and IQ. Huhn also cited a report that shows marijuana use among both adolescents and adults increased when Colorado legalized marijuana in 2012, which was commissioned by the federal Rocky Mountain HIDTA Strategic Intelligence Unit task force.

“We worry so much about protecting our children that it is illegal to leave them in the car outside a drug store for three minutes, yet we completely tolerate widespread substance abuse by kids,” Huhn said.

Supporters of legalization argued that much of the data used by opponents of legalization are methodically flawed. Sam Tracy, executive director of Connecticut Coalition to Regulate Marijuana, said legalization would actually allow the government to better regulate the marijuana market and divert users away from illicit drug dealers, who currently dominate the market. People who start purchasing marijuana from drug dealers may later be introduced to more dangerous substances such as heroin and cocaine, Tracy said.

“The medical profession has a philosophy of ‘first do no harm,’” he said. “But the current law is really causing more harms than benefits.”

Many other studies have shown that Colorado has increased its tax revenues while reducing its drug abuse rates since legalization, Tracy said. Considering Connecticut’s growing budget deficit, he said, legalization would be a good way to generate much-needed revenue for the state.

Others honed in on the futility of prohibition. State Rep. Joshua Elliott, D-Hamden, noted that legal marijuana sales will begin in Massachusetts this July, so Connecticut residents will be able to drive across the state border to purchase marijuana with impunity. So if Connecticut does not legalize the substance, all the potential revenue will flow to Massachusetts, he said, while Connecticut stands to deal with all the repercussions of marijuana misuse.

Still, others expressed support for the bill but made recommendations to improve the legislation. Aaron Romano, who represented the Connecticut Criminal Defense Lawyers Associations before the Judiciary Committee, told the News that legalization would help to remedy the racial injustice induced by marijuana laws, which have been enforced unevenly across racial groups. Romano suggested that the legislation should, among other things, erase criminal records for people convicted of possessing or selling cannabis and dismiss pending charges related to cannabis offenses. Although Connecticut already decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana in 2011, Romano noted that many judges are still reluctant to overturn marijuana convictions.

“We need to build this into the system,” Romano said.

And Henry Talmage, executive director of the Connecticut Farm Bureau, recommended that the bill ease marijuana licensing standards to level the playing field for small farmers. According to Talmage, marijuana production has been dominated by wealthy individuals and corporations ever since the state legalized medical marijuana in 2012.

Although time is limited in this year’s legislative session and Gov. Dannel Malloy is skeptical about the idea, proponents are optimistic about their chances of success in the near future, given that 71 percent of Connecticut residents favor legalization, according to a 2017 Sacred Heart University poll.

“Almost every single Democrat running for governor supports this, and we even have Republicans who are open to this issue too,” Tracy said. “If they don’t pass it this year, I think there is a very good chance, almost inevitability, that we will pass it in the next three.”

Recreational cannabis is now legal in eight states. Only one of them, Vermont, legalized it through legislative actions.

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