CT: Marijuana Proponents Praise Legislative Victory, Ponder Next Steps

Photo Credit: A.E. Araiza

Marijuana advocates hailed a vote by the legislature’s appropriations committee this week as a small but significant step toward legalizing the drug in Connecticut.

And despite the long road ahead, they’ve begun to ponder the framework for growing and selling pot here.

“It’s a great feeling to make it further than we ever have,” said Sam Tracy, head of the Connecticut Coalition to Regulate Marijuana. “It was a historic day for Connecticut.”

The appropriations committee narrowly approved a measure calling on state agencies to draft a plan for the legalization and regulation of cannabis. The proposal, due Oct. 1, would be sent to the General Assembly.

The plan must include substance abuse treatment, prevention and awareness programs.

“This is a reality,” said David McGuire, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut, who testified in favor of the bill. “It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when, and this will be a new industry that is going to help a lot of people and create opportunities for a lot of people.”

If the legislation clears the House and Senate, state officials will turn their attention to crafting a blueprint in the coming months. Proponents said they hope to have a voice in the plan.

“Connecticut is finally putting some true thought and consideration into what looks to be society’s choice.
— Colin Souney, marijuana activist

Tracy suggested state leaders focus on licensing that goes beyond cultivating, processing and selling the drug. A fourth tier, dubbed social consumption licenses, would allow for the establishment of marijuana bars or lounges. States like Colorado permit the facilities, which have been a draw for tourists.

“For people who live in, say, public housing, who rent and have rules against smoking indoors, or other people who just don’t want to do it around their kids, I think it is important to have a place where they can legally and safely consume in a regulated environment,” Tracy said.

Plans for taxation at the state and local levels must be hammered out, he added, with incentives for cities and towns to erect dispensaries.

In some states, revenue from taxes is divided among the state and municipalities. Other areas have separate taxation at the local and state levels.

Politicians in Hartford have already signaled a willingness to embrace marijuana facilities. In December, the city council approved a resolution directing administrators to launch an economic impact study for a potential cannabis industry in Hartford, and to hold public forums on the issue.

“We do need to have places where people can legally purchase this, where we can get the tax revenue,” Tracy said. “If all 169 cities and towns banned it – even if it’s legal at the state level – it’s not effectively legal.”

McGuire urged state officials to include advocacy groups in future talks about pot legalization.

“The last thing we want to see is an industry that starts and then closes out the very people that were harmed by it, and who should have an opportunity to benefit from it,” he said.

McGuire was referring to groups like the Minority Cannabis Business Association, which aims to create equal access and economic advancement for pot retailers, their consumers and the communities affected by the war on drugs.

Colin Souney, a marijuana activist from Guilford, said education on substance abuse and prevention should be a top priority. He praised the committee’s passage of the bill that lays the groundwork for the next steps.

“Connecticut is finally putting some true thought and consideration into what looks to be society’s choice,” he said.

A Sacred Heart University poll in October found 70 percent of state residents either “strongly” or “somewhat” support legalizing cannabis for adults and taxing it. Because Connecticut does not have a mechanism to legalize marijuana with a ballot question, any resolution would have to pass through the legislature.

Critics have warned, however, that the effort still faces an uphill battle. Legislative leaders cautioned that they haven’t yet decided whether the issue will come up for a vote before the session adjourns May 9.

“At the end of the day, this is a work in progress,” state Rep. Juan Candelaria said.