CT: Legalizing Pot Takes Center Stage Again

Photo Credit: iStockphoto

As has been the case for the past several years, passionate cases were made by both sides on whether to legalize recreational marijuana in Connecticut before the Appropriations Committee on Wednesday.

The committee has raised a bill, HB 5394, to legalize recreational marijuana in Connecticut.

Cody Roberts, 26, attended Tuesday’s hearing wearing a pro-marijuana flag draped around his shoulders. He said he is a member of Connecticut NORML, a state chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).

Roberts, of Seymour, also said he is part of the state’s growing medical marijuana program, which now numbers more than 20,000 patients.

“I use it for nerve damage,” said Roberts, who added that medical marijuana has helped him steer clear of other substance abuse issues he’s suffered in the past.

“That’s why I think the whole argument that pot is a gateway drug to other drugs is ridiculous,” Roberts said. “I’m tired of that argument and I’m tired of legislators not following the wishes of the majority of the people in Connecticut.”

Nearly two-thirds of Connecticut voters, or 63 percent, support making possession of small amounts of cannabis legal for adults, according to a March 2015 Quinnipiac University poll.

But opponents of legalization don’t believe those numbers or other research proponents often quote that state marijuana isn’t a gateway drug to harder drugs down the road.

“It’s important to look deep into the research and who is doing the research,” Bo Huhn, a spokesman for both CT Smart Approaches to Marijuana and Guilford Development Assets for Youth (DAY), said during a break in the public hearing.

Huhn who testified against legalization before the committee along with two Guilford DAY high school students — Gabby Palumbo and Elizabeth Abernathy — has been a frequent speaker at legalization hearings the past few years at the legislature.

“It’s just such an important issue,” Huhn said. “The overdose issue that is plaguing our state and our country has also changed the dynamic. The legislature needs to be careful.”

Huhn added: “I wish it (pot) didn’t have adverse effects. But the research those on our side have looked at shows that’s not the case.”

Added Aberthany, a junior at Guilford High School: “It shouldn’t be legalized — plain and simple. It can lead to substance abuse.”

Also testifying against legalization — as he has before in past years — was Dr. Deepak Cyril D’Souza, a research scientist and professor of psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine.

“There is no question that marijuana is addictive,” D’Souza said, who added that research shows that “one in three” who smoke marijuana will become addicted.

Another opponent, Luke Niforatos, chief of staff and senior policy adviser for Smart Approaches to Marijuana, said there’s a misnomer that marijuana is a money-maker for states.

He told the committee that marijuana legalization brings with it additional costs in the medical and law enforcement fields that outstrip the revenue.

Appropriations Committee Co-Chair Toni Walker, D-New Haven, a proponent of legalization, pointed out that research she’s read shows that states that have legalized weed show increased revenue and decreased arrests.

“We can go at this all day long,” Walker said, meaning she, too, believes that both the proponents and opponents of legalization will continue to trot out research they say bolsters their arguments.

The Office of Fiscal Analysis estimated last year that Connecticut could bring in $45.4 million to $104.6 million a year if it legalizes marijuana in the same way it’s been done in Massachusetts or Colorado.

Nine states and Washington, D.C. have legalized recreational pot.

In 2012, Colorado and Washington state became the first to legally allow pot for recreational purposes. Washington, D.C., and six other states, including Massachusetts and California, have since legalized marijuana — although D.C., like Vermont, does not allow recreational pot sales.

As of July 1, people in Massachusetts will be selling recreational pot. And soon to follow will be Maine, although no date has yet been set there.

But the Connecticut Chapter of Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM) recently released a report that says legalization of marijuana would cost the state $216 million in 2020.

CT SAM estimated the increased cost to the state would come in the form of an increase in the number of traffic fatalities, increased vehicle insurance rates, emergency room visits, homelessness, workplace injuries, and an increase in chronic absenteeism at work.

The General Law Committee on March 20 defeated a different bill — one that would have crafted a regulatory structure for recreational marijuana — by a vote of 11 to 6.

That bill didn’t technically legalize marijuana, but it would have legalized possession of up to an ounce and it would have allowed a person over the age of 21 to cultivate not more than six marijuana plants.

It also set up a licensing scheme for “marijuana lounges and marijuana retailers.”

There are at least four committees that have raised bills this year dealing with the legalization of marijuana.

A proponent of legalization, Rep. Josh Elliott, D-Hamden, has said the House Democratic caucus is still 17 votes shy of passage. Democrats hold an 80-71 majority over Republicans in that chamber.