In this year’s gubernatorial race, the debate over marijuana legalization is beginning to light up.
A renewed state-level debate, along with a string of overdoses last month in New Haven caused by the synthetic cannabinoid K2, have drawn attention in recent weeks to discussions about cannabis policy. And with Connecticut’s 2018 gubernatorial election approaching, marijuana legalization may be a potential hot-button issue in the crowded race.
“If the new governor makes legalizing cannabis a priority, they make it feasible,” said Riley Tillitt ’19, president of Yale Students for Sensible Drug Policy. “If they oppose [the measure], it will be a lot more difficult for it to make it through.”
In recent weeks, Democratic hopefuls have signaled their support for such measures. Susan Bysiewicz ’83, the former Connecticut secretary of state, said at a gubernatorial forum in late January that she would support the legalization of marijuana for recreational use. This policy could help mitigate the effects of Connecticut’s opioid crisis, she said, citing Colorado-based studies that found a significant drop in opioid-related deaths after the state passed cannabis legislation.
A mid-February poll conducted by Tremont Advisors — a political consulting group — placed Bysiewicz on top of a crowded Democratic field, with 10 percent of the total vote.
At the same gubernatorial forum, Hartford Mayor and likely Democratic candidate Luke Bronin ’01 LAW ’06 also signaled his support for the measure, although he believes a significant proportion of the revenue gained from taxation should go toward addiction treatment programs. He reiterated that stance at a Yale College Democrats–sponsored event on Tuesday.
The Yale Students for Sensible Drug Policy helped organize a Nov. 28 gubernatorial debate, which focused on marijuana regulation. Democratic hopefuls Dan Drew, who has since dropped out of the race, and Jonathan Harris, as well as unaffiliated candidate Micah Welintukonis, voiced support for legalized recreational marijuana. But all three candidates expressed concern over the exact regulations that would oversee the drug.
State Rep. Prasad Srinivasan, R-Glastonbury, was the only candidate to oppose legalization at the debate, citing a lack of research on public safety and health consequences.
There are a handful of Republicans supporting legal marijuana as well. New Britain Mayor Erin Stewart, who led the Tremont Advisors poll with 15.2 percent of the vote, said in a tweet on Feb. 5 that she supports legalization, as long as a detailed regulatory plan accompanies it.
Tillitt attributed this burgeoning GOP enthusiasm to libertarian ideals, attributing Republicans’ support for the conservative belief that the “government shouldn’t say what someone should or should not consume.”
Colin McEnroe ’76, a local radio host and political personality, attributed GOP backing to the heavily Democratic demographics of the state, noting that it is in the political interest of Republicans to support a popular measure.
An October Sacred Heart University poll found that 71 percent of Connecticut voters backed legalization of recreational cannabis.
Still, not every Republican is on board. Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton, who ranks second in polling among Republicans, has historically opposed the measure. After Connecticut legalized medical marijuana in 2012, Boughton proposed changes to zoning regulations that would have effectively banned the medical sale of the drug in Danbury.
The Boughton campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
Ultimately, whoever emerges as victor in the gubernatorial race will face a statewide tide that is turning in favor of cannabis legalization.
Although Gov. Dannel Malloy has long opposed recreational cannabis, his most recent budget proposes legalizing and regulating the recreational use of marijuana as one alternative to his series of recommended revisions for closing the budget shortfall.
And Senate President Pro Tempore Martin Looney, D-New Haven, told the CT Mirror on Feb. 13 that he expects “robust debate” on the issue, noting that passage during this year’s legislative session is “within the realm of possibility.”
Advocates for legalization and taxation pointed to increased revenue for the state — which Connecticut’s Office of Fiscal Analysis estimates could amount to anywhere from $30 million to $105 million — as support for their cause. Tillitt also listed public health, racial justice and criminal health as reasons to back marijuana legalization.
McEnroe, however, takes issue with the financial argument for legalization, noting that the revenue generated would not be enough to cover the state’s fiscal shortfall. There are many questions surrounding regulation that have yet to be answered, he added, such as rules surrounding pot-related DUIs and the age limit.
“It may be a really good idea,” McEnroe said, “but it [would be] a really good idea for a lot of reasons that have nothing to do with money. The money is a shabby reason to do it.”
Over 12 people overdosed on the synthetic cannabinoid K2 in New Haven last month, spurring a push by Ward 1 Alder Hacibey Catalbasoglu ’19 and Students for Sensible Drug Policy for a city resolution in support of taxation.
“If cannabis was taxed and regulated in Connecticut, the overdoses [from K2] would not have happened, and there would not be the same black market demand,” Tillitt said.
Marijuana is currently legal in nine states, and 29 states have approved the drug for medicinal purposes.