It’s All in the Details: Connecticut Moves Toward Legalizing Marijuana

Arizona, Montana, South Dakota and New Jersey all voted to legalize recreational marijuana on November 3, joining eleven other states and the District of Columbia. Just 15 states still outlaw marijuana in any form, and Connecticut is not one of them, having decriminalized possession in 2011 and legalized cannabis for medical purposes in 2012. 

New Jersey joins three other states in the region, Massachusetts, Vermont and Maine, which already legalized cannabis products. New York and Rhode Island are also mulling over the issue, and Connecticut’s state leadership has made it clear that marijuana legalization is a priority for the upcoming legislative session. 

“The vote count has been pretty close for a couple of years now, and while I don’t know if we have 76 votes or not right now, it’s only getting closer and closer, so at some point, it is inevitable,” said incoming House Speaker Matt Ritter. “Previous vote counts had us short somewhere between ten and 15 votes, and we have 15 new members. That doesn’t mean the bill dies if we don’t get all 15 people, though, because people’s views evolve and changes in neighboring states will affect how members think about this question, too.” 

Of the fifteen new Democratic representatives heading to Hartford, at least five support cannabis legalization: Jennifer Leeper, Stephanie Thomas, Kate Farrar, Brandon Chafee and Frank Smith. 

Michael Quinn, the newly-elected representative of Middlefield, said he generally supports legalization, but is waiting for the actual legislation before committing to voting one way or the other.

Smith, the newly-elected representative of Milford, said he generally supports legalization and worries about Connecticut falling behind and losing revenue to nearby states. 

“I don’t take the legalization of intoxicants and drugs lightly, but we have to get with the rest of the country,” Smith said. “A number of states passed referendums on this just earlier this month, and we’re losing a good deal of interstate revenue to Massachusetts.” 

None of the new representatives publicly oppose legalization, but at least two are waiting to see what the bill looks like before making a decision either way. Eleni Kavros DeGraw, who will represent Avon and Canton in the House, said she was waiting to see the language of a bill around legalizing marijuana and still hoping to hear more from constituents about their perspective on the issue. Incoming State Rep. Mary Welander of Woodbridge also wanted to see specific information in the bill, and said her primary legislative focus right now is COVID-19 and education. 

State Rep. Josh Elliott of Hamden, who supports legalization, is optimistic that a bill will pass, but unsure of exactly what that bill will look like. 

“If we have everybody that was a yes last cycle and everyone on the fence vote in favor, we’ll get the 76 votes we need,” Elliott said. “I think many of the people who were holdouts last time are now willing to support legalization, but with conditions.” 

Elliott mentioned age as one sticking point, with some members hoping to legalize at 21 and others at 25. All other states that have legalized recreational marijuana have done so for residents over the age of 21. Elliott also said some members of the caucus have concerns about how to prevent residents from driving under the influence of marijuana. However, as of now, Elliott said the biggest issue to resolve is where the money will go. 

As Connecticut’s projected $1.2 billion budget deficit looms, some members may see legalization as a path to improve the state’s finances. A study from the University of Connecticut released in September found that marijuana legalization could bring in as much as $952 million in the first five years. 

“That aspect of this is frustrating for me, because to me, this isn’t about money at all,” Elliott said. “I’m pushing for this bill to acknowledge and address the issues of the government enacting laws that disproportionately affect black and brown bodies. We need to try to repair the damage we’ve been doing for decades, and there are few ways to do that other than by reinvesting in communities of color, which is where I believe the majority of revenue should go.” 

Still, if Democratic legislators hope to reach across the aisle, allocating funding to other areas may be a necessary concession. 

“More than anything, everyone just wants a bill that can pass,” Elliott said. “But there’s a real spectrum of what the bill could look like, and a bill that gets 76 votes with a comprehensive equity portion could look very different from a bill getting 85 votes with most of the money going to pensions.” 

Democratic leaders have made it clear that the legalization of recreational marijuana will also come with the expungement of criminal records related to cannabis. Still, the question of what the process of expungement will look like is still up for debate. 

“We need to figure out the nuance of expungement, and whether someone will have to proactively seek it, whether the government will automatically expunge all marijuana records, or something in the middle,” Elliott said. “I think that if we have criminalized behavior that we now recognize is in no way inherently criminal, it’s incumbent on the government to relieve you of the scarlet letter you’d otherwise be carrying.” 

Incoming Speaker Ritter hopes to pass legislation legalizing recreational cannabis in the upcoming session, but if not, he is prepared to pursue other methods of achieving this goal. 

“If we can’t muster the votes this session, I say we put it to the voters and do a constitutional amendment,” Ritter said. “It’s not my preferred path, but I don’t want to debate this again and again for years. The statehouse is far more conservative than the population at large on this issue, and if we put it to a referendum, I think it would pass.”

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