CT: Lawmakers Hold Hearing Thursday On Legalizing Marijuana

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Lawmakers are weighing public testimony throughout the day on whether to legalize the sale of non-medical marijuana.

Michelle Seagull, commissioner of the Department of Consumer Protection, told the legislature’s General Law Committee it would take two years, “on the early side,” to put forth regulations, steer them through the legislature, and field and vet applications for marijuana vendors.

Seagull, whose agency would oversee marijuana sales, said legalizing the drug would require DCP to create a new division with about 50 employees to license vendors, vet their backgrounds and monitor their products’ quality.

Without taking a stance for or against marijuana’s wholesale legalization, Seagull said that the state’s medical marijuana program — which she called “the gold standard” for the country — could lose patients if Connecticut greenlighted recreational sales. Medical marijuana dispensaries are subject to strict regulations that create “very high quality medicine,” Seagull said, but if the drug were legalized, some patients could turn to growing their own plants or buying from retailers that offer a “less precise,” if cheaper, product — particularly because insurers do not cover medical marijuana.

“It’s reasonable to assume some patients would begin to self-medicate with homegrown marijuana,” Seagull said.

State Senator John Kissel was concerned about the bill’s grow-your-own provision, which would allow people to grow up to six marijuana plants per person, with a limit of 12 plants per household.

“If someone’s growing plants in their backyard, who’s regulating that?” Kissel, a Republican from Enfield, asked Seagull. “I think this is really bad public policy. We don’t have the eggplant police going into backyards, saying you’re growing eight eggplants instead of six. We don’t have a marijuana police — we don’t have enough police as it is.”

Seagull conceded that DCP “would have a much harder time regulating the quality of the product people are growing on their own.”

Kissel was skeptical of the dual track system Seagull described, were marijuana made legal: A tightly regulated medical program on one side, a far less controlled retail and homegrown industry on the other, and the choice up to the consumer.

“I don’t want my state to turn into the Wild West of marijuana,” he said.

Three of legal marijuana’s staunchest champions in the legislature prefaced Thursday’s hearing with an appeal to their colleagues to keep pace with neighboring states that have legalized retail sales.

State representative Josh Elliot said that once retail sales become legal in Massachusetts in July, “people can take a 20 minute drive across the border, buy recreational cannabis and bring it back with no repercussions. All that means is marijuana is de facto legalized, and we’re losing out on tax revenue.”

But Elliot, a Democrat, said legalizing the drug for him is “not an economic issue, but a social justice issue.”

Legalizing the drug would begin to repair some of the damages suffered by communities of color, whom Elliot said have been disproportionately affected by the drug’s criminalization.

On Monday, the legislature’s Judiciary Committee will take up a separate bill, Senate Bill No. 487, which would actually legalize the possession, sale and cultivation of limited amounts of marijuana. The bill being weighed by the General Law Committee Thursday, House Bill No. 5458, merely sets forth an apparatus to regulate the drug’s retail sales and home cultivation — a “limited-scope question,” said Michael D’Agostino, the committee’s chair. “We’re addressing how we would do it, rather than if we should do it,” D’Agostino said. “This committee’s purview is the regulatory environment.”

The pre-submitted testimony, filed by concerned parents, a board of health directors, state legislators, medical marijuana patients and admitted recreational smokers, arrays the arguments — financial, ideological, safety-minded, religious — for and against marijuana’s wholesale legalization.

Several of Connecticut’s neighbors have legalized marijuana’s retail sale. In Massachusetts, marijuana retailers can begin selling in July. Maine voters approved retail sales in 2016, but the state’s legislature has enacted a moratorium on sales, set to expire in April. When Vermont’s Republican governor, Phil Scott, signed a bill in January legalizing marijuana that was approved by the state legislature eight months earlier, Vermont became the first state to approve retail sales without a voter initiative.

Connecticut, which lacks a mechanism to legalize marijuana with the ballot, would have to take a similar route. Some prominent lawmakers have backed legal pot. One of them, Senate Pro Tempore Martin Looney, submitted testimony, calling marijuana’s legal status a “complex yet critically important issue,” but one that should be resolved by taking a “rational, common-sense approach to marijuana, as we did with alcohol: regulating and taxing it.”

Looney, the top-ranking Democrat in the state Senate, said legalizing marijuana sales would subject them to government oversight; health and safety inspections would winnow out tainted drugs and make for safer transactions, he argued.

“We need to ensure that Connecticut is not left behind as our neighbors move forward with common sense marijuana policy,” he wrote.

Some argued the drug would accelerate the opioid-fueled tailspin of addiction and death in Connecticut. The board of the Connecticut Association of Directors of Health, which represents heads of local health departments and districts, said in testimony they “strongly oppose the retail sale of marijuana,” believing it would aggravate existing addiction issues.

“Allowing the retail sale of marijuana will only increase these addiction rates and amplify the current crisis,” the board wrote to lawmakers.

But others said that marijuana, when used judiciously, can blunt opioid withdrawal and wean the addicted off more dangerous drugs. Bart Szcarba, a New Haven resident who submitted testimony, said he had been addicted to opioids after breaking his back in 2001, requiring two surgeries. “Marijuana helped break that addiction and with [Connecticut’s medical marijuana program] I manage pain,” he wrote. “It changed my life.”

There was the old argument that marijuana is a cash crop, one federal and state governments have entrusted only to criminals. Connecticut could shore up its unsteady finances in part by legalizing marijuana and taxing its sale, advocates say. The drug’s detractors countered that the state shouldn’t put balancing budgets ahead of safety.

“This is all about MONEY as usual and no thought of the problems it will cause,” wrote Gerri Argentino of North Haven.

Some claimed legalizing marijuana would stem the flow of low-level offenders into Connecticut’s jails, reducing the Department of Corrections’ operating costs and freeing law enforcement to go after more serious offenders.

“Our state is in the middle of an opioid epidemic that requires additional resources, among which are law enforcement,” wrote Scott Hawkins. “Legalizing and regulating marijuana will free up some of those resources to help fight that epidemic.”

One man, a medical marijuana patient, wrote in testimony he had been arrested for growing marijuana strains at home that he could not find in a dispensary.

“I am now facing 60 years in prison, a life sentence for me, just for growing a form of medication that works best for me,” he wrote. Judicial records show he is facing four felony charges for possessing and selling drugs, and for operating a drug factory.

The proposed legislation would allow people to grow up to six plants per person, and 12 plants per household. It is unclear what effect legalizing marijuana would have on people convicted of crimes related to the drug; after legalizing the drug last year, California has allowed people imprisoned for low-level marijuana offenses to petition their sentences, and The New York Times reported that several hundred inmates had been freed. But those convicted of federal marijuana-related crimes could not petition their sentences, the Times found.

Suzanne Piazza, who described herself as “a progressive and a Democrat,” disputed in written testimony that legalizing marijuana would have no effect on drug addiction in Connecticut.

“I have worked with addicts and recovering people for over 30 years and I am very concerned about the effect that legalizing marijuana will have on our community,” she wrote. “What we need is more treatment not legalization of a drug.”

But Tom McCormick, who urged legislators to “go out into a wilderness area…shed artifice and ingest a plant that can mediate reality” and “watch a butterfly lap your sweat as it seeks salt,” mustered a religious argument for legal pot.

“Genesis clearly states God gave us every plant and herb for our use. He rested on the seventh day and said it was good,” McCormick wrote. “Do you deny this?”