Early Tuesday morning, the State Senate passed legislation to legalize recreational marijuana in Connecticut. 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.
After a debate that stretched for hours on the Senate floor, Connecticut Examiner spoke with several legislators to get insight into how they ended up deciding to cast their votes. State Sen. Norm Needleman, D-Essex, was one of the votes in support of the legislation.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
How did you decide to support the bill?
The bill is generally a good bill, and a lot of the issues that I raised were resolved. I wanted to make sure a significant amount of money went towards prevention and education and dealing with kids and addiction. These things are out there anyway, so if we’re going to have a revenue stream, that’s where money needs to go.
I’ve been very clear during all of my campaigns that even though I supported this, I’ve never been a fan of looking at it as a source of revenue. In Connecticut because of our budget situation, we’re dependent on a lot of sin taxes, like tobacco and gambling. Whatever money we make from those things, I always want to make sure that a significant amount of money goes to helping people who suffer from addictive problems related to them. I think we got there.
How confident are you in the final product?
There are very, very few bills that exist outside of a gray area. This was not a slam dunk, not something that isn’t morally ambiguous to some extent. I had moments where I questioned, am I doing the right thing? This is not an easy question or an easy bill to craft, similar to the police accountability bill. I’m glad it’s over, just like with police accountability. I just keep saying to myself, how many more bills are going to make me lose sleep at night?
Do I deep down think that an additive number of people will get addicted to substances if we make this more accessible and legal? And if I do believe that, how do I weigh it against the issue around the criminal justice side of it, and where should money go and what should we be teaching people? Those are the kinds of things I worry about. I know that this is not the cannabis of my youth, this is orders of magnitude stronger, and a highly regulated environment is important. These are questions we should all ask ourselves whenever we vote on anything. Laws and budgets are moral documents. In this case, we’ve made a moral decision that I think is the right one.
While you ended up voting to support the bill, it does sound like you were conflicted. Were there any arguments or pieces of testimony from opponents of the bill that you found particularly persuasive?
When people speak from the heart, I’m always deeply moved. These are not analytical issues at a point, these are emotional and personal. Senator Cohen spoke from the heart, and I watched her as she teared up about this issue. Senator Formica spoke very personally about his own struggles, and those things speak loud and clear to me. There is a lot of passion around communities that have been negatively impacted, and you saw a lot of hesitancy in the vote. A lot of people waited until the last minute, and I get it.
The vote count ended up close, but how did it feel in the room itself? Was the vote really up in the air?
I’ve never heard that chamber so quiet when we were waiting for people to vote. It was not a done deal. You should never bring a bill out unless you know it’s a done deal, and there was concern even up to the last minute, people pondering and thinking and noncommittal, because this is a hard thing to do, and not an issue that everyone approaches in a partisan way.
When I ran in 2016 against Melissa Ziobron, it was an interesting debate, because the two of us supported legalization, whereas Linda Orange, a House member from the Colchester area, opposed it, as did her Republican opponent.
These are not necessarily the easiest votes, and people are not as partisan as much as unfortunately in that building everything really normally devolves into being. I hate reductionist thinking, and I really do not like the team mentality. I struggle with that all the time, the idea that you have to vote this way because you’re on this side. You can be with someone 99 times, but when you’re not with them one time, they’re going to be angry with you. That’s the way the building works.