Cohen Explains Her ‘No’ on Marijuana

Early Tuesday morning, the State Senate passed legislation to legalize recreational marijuana in the state. The proposal received bipartisan support and opposition, and passed with just a two-vote margin of 19-17. The House will now take up the bill Wednesday, with House Majority Leader Jason Rojas, D-East Hartford, saying he is confident it will pass before the end of the session at midnight. 

Connecticut Examiner spoke to several legislators who spent hours debating the bill on the Senate floor to get insight into how they ended up deciding to cast their votes. State Sen. Christine Cohen, D-Guilford, voted against the legislation. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

How did you decide to vote against the legislation? 

This is something that for the past three years has come up — long before my tenure as a legislator — is something that as a parent and as somebody who was on a board of education, is something we discussed, deliberated over. This wasn’t something that was new to me in terms of trying to dig into the topic. 

I’ve been involved in some of the youth and family programs in my area, and this is something that’s been top of mind for these groups. When I became a legislator, I sat down with all of these groups to better understand what they saw as the potential impact of legalization of adult use cannabis, and there were a lot of concerns.

I’m also the parent of three children, and I’m not a stranger to addiction in my extended family. I grew up the daughter of an alcoholic, and grew up around drug and alcohol abusers. I have seen people in and out of recovery. I know the struggles, and I also know that under a certain age, cannabis really can lead to other illicit drug use. My concern really was coming at this from the angle of people who are under 26 years of age. 

What is it about younger users of marijuana that is of particular concern to you? 

I see very little issue, in the research, with true adult use — which is once the brain is fully formed. People are responsibly using cannabis, and it doesn’t tend to be a gateway into other use. But when you look at research under the age of 26, before the brain has fully developed, especially in young men, you see all sorts of data on underlying mental health conditions being exacerbated, the slowing of brain development, memory loss, and potential for other drug use. These are the things that really weighed heavily upon me.

How do you feel about alcohol being legal for adults before they reach full brain maturity? 

The more research I’ve done on this, the more I recognize that alcohol should not be engaged in at a young age, especially regular use. Alcohol probably has more addictive qualities than marijuana, and can be very very dangerous when under the influence, so I do have concerns. And yeah, if I had my druthers, would they both be 26? They would. 

What were some of the concerns you had about the specifics of the marijuana bill itself? 

I talked a lot to my colleagues about what we could do in terms of potency, and if we could do anything with age changes in terms of legalization, but that’s very difficult when alcohol is 21. I talked a lot about mental health and addiction services, and trying to ensure that we have enough dollars going into those types of services as well as youth and family services in our towns that will be working hard to make sure we’re not getting drugs into the hands of our younger residents. 

I worry from a business owner standpoint about what happens when somebody’s operating certain equipment under the influence, especially since it’s not quite as obvious as alcohol use. In that same vein, I heard a lot of concerns from the law enforcement community about what traffic stops look like and how to understand if people are in fact under the influence. 

Is there a version of this bill that you could have supported? 

It would have been hard for me to get there, but if potency caps were lower, if I felt that our Department of Mental Health & Addiction Services and Department of Public Health had time to really study this issue and set up mental health and addiction services across the state, I think I would have been more likely to get there. 

While you don’t support the bill, are there parts of it you appreciate? 

I so appreciate the equity components of this bill, because I do think that our Black and brown brothers and sisters have been disproportionately impacted by this. I’m really hopeful that with the passage of this, records are expunged and they are able to reap the benefits of an industry that’s really been oppressive to that community in particular for far too long. I was really struggling with the bill because I am in full support of those pieces. 

I also think that for all I’m saying about mental health and addiction, I am pleased that there are services in there that they’ve budgeted for. Potency also started higher, and came down a bit. The more things were talked about, the more I recognized how much compromise there was on this bill. That’s what legislation is all about. Have a starting point, listen to all different stakeholders and parties on the topic, try and derive bits and pieces to get yourself to a piece of legislation that takes into account all of those voices and the safety of our residents. They did a good job of listening to those stakeholders, it just ultimately didn’t land in a place that I support.

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