CT: Legislative Committee Rejects Marijuana Legalization

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A key legislative committee rejected legalizing recreational marijuana by an 11 to 6 vote Tuesday.

The general law committee was deeply split with strong remarks on both sides for and against recreational marijuana before the measure was defeated. Republicans and Democrats came down on both sides of the issue as the measure was not decided on a party line basis.

The vote was a setback to advocates because the bill had been purposely steered to the general law committee this year as the House co-chairman, Rep. Michael D’Agostino, was an advocate for legalization. The other two co-chairs, Sen. Carlo Leone of Stamford and Sen. Kevin Witkos of Canton, also voted in favor. But most of the rest of the committee ignored the views of the three co-chairmen and rejected the bill.

Leone, a Stamford Democrat, said the process is a long way from over because four different committees are considering various aspects of marijuana legalization. The general law committee focused only on certain aspects of the bill, including that it would allow the growing of six plants per individual and 12 plants per household.

The committee focused on the regulatory aspects, and did not discuss tax or public health impacts — which would be handled in other bills by other committees in the coming days and weeks.

“We did not try to tackle the legality of it,’’ Leone told fellow committee members. “We did not try to tackle the morality of it. … There’s still a ways to go.’’

But Leone told committee members that Connecticut should take action now because marijuana has been legalized in Massachusetts and is expected to be legally available later this year.

“If we don’t confront it here and now, we will be confronting it down the road,’’ Leone said.

After the vote, Leone said that he had not expected the measure to pass.

A key voter in favor of the bill was deputy Senate Republican leader Kevin Witkos, a former police officer in Canton for nearly three decades. Witkos surprised some lawmakers by being in favor of the narrow bill, adding that he might vote later against marijuana legalization on the Senate floor.

“All this does is move it along into the next phase,’’ Witkos said. “Why shouldn’t we be debating it on the floor?’’

An outspoken Republican, Rep. Melissa Ziobron, said, “Alcohol is a killer. Cannabis has never killed anyone.’’

Besides Leone, Witkos and Ziobron, those in favor included House co-chairman Michael D’Agostino of Hamden, David Arconti of Danbury, and newly elected Bobby Gibson of Bloomfield.

In a change of strategy this year, marijuana advocates purposely steered the bill to the general law committee because D’Agostino strongly supported the measure as co-chairman.

But Rep. Josh Elliott of Hamden, one of the strongest advocates in the legislature, predicted that the measure would fail this year because there are 17 “no’’ votes among Democrats in the House. Since Democrats control the House by 80 to 71, there are not enough votes in the House for passage, Elliott said.

In addition, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has been against legalization for years, increasing the barriers to passage. Malloy listed legalization among the “options’’ for raising tax money this year, but he said later that he had not changed his position and was still against legalization.

In the same way that some insiders predicted that the marijuana bill would fail, Leone said later that the vote was not completely unexpected.

“There’s still a lot of issues that are on the legislators minds, so I didn’t expect it to pass,” Leone said. “I think the bill, as was mentioned, still has a long way to go but this gives us the opportunity to think for when that time comes, whether it’s now, or some time in the future or far off in the future. At some point, we need to have a framework.”

Before the vote, committee members said they disapproved of the process in which the legislation was brought up this session. Four committees took on different portions and some committee members argued it made the process frustrating.

Leone does not believe splitting the legislation was among the reasons why members of the committee opposed it.

“There’s many reasons why someone may or may not support it. By separating out the things that would’ve been within our control, I think would’ve given some semblance of a framework for others to consider. That doesn’t negate the questions that would’ve needed to be resolved outside the regulatory process.”

“I think we did it in the way that made the most sense given the controversy on the topic,” Leone said.

Leone said considering “such a controversial bill” in a short session was unusual and that it made it difficult to flush out the legislation’s framework.

“Given that we’re in a very short session, for such a controversial topic would’ve made it very difficult [to flush out,]” he said. “I think once Massachusetts does come online we will have a few months of real impact to the state of Connecticut on how we have to adjust because we will have to adjust, ” Leone said. “Even if it didn’t pass this year, we’re going to have to come up with some sort of framework going forward if because of the impact from the outside state.”