Mayors Debate a Legal Obligation to Allow at Least Limited Public Use of Marijuana

Legislation that legalized recreational marijuana in Connecticut beginning July 1, also includes a provision that any city or town with a population of more than 50,000 must “designate a place in the municipality in which public consumption of cannabis is permitted.” 

19 municipalities across Connecticut fit that requirement, and leaders of all of those cities and towns are currently navigating how best to implement the law at the local level.

For Mayor Ellen Zoppo-Sassu of Bristol, the question is not necessarily designating a specific area for smoking, but rather, figuring out whether Bristol will place any limits on the public smoking of marijuana beyond those that already exist for tobacco. 

“It is my understanding that the provision only applies to municipalities that choose to regulate the public use of recreational marijuana,” Zoppo-Sassu said. “So, for example, if Bristol chooses to limit the use of recreational marijuana, the city would be required to have an outdoor area designated for smoking. Our further understanding of the law is that in places where smoking cigarettes is prohibited, marijuana will also be prohibited, which means it would be prohibited in our local parks which currently have ordinances against smoking.” 

New Haven officials have interpreted the law similarly, believing that the requirement is intended only to prevent municipalities from placing a blanket ban on marijuana smoking in public. 

Kyle Buda, director of communications for the City of New Haven, said Mayor Justin Elicker does not anticipate placing restrictions beyond those already in place for smoking. 

“Generally speaking, consumption or smoking marijuana is also legal throughout the city but is not allowed in places where cigarette smoking is outlawed – such as in bars, restaurants, playgrounds, and within 25 feet of a door or window of a public building,” Buda said. “New Haven has not placed any additional prohibitions on marijuana consumption other than previously established ordinances governing tobacco use.” 

New London is following a similar plan, according to Mayor Mike Passero, who said that “the city currently is not considering restrictions beyond the current restrictions on smoking tobacco in public places or the restrictions provided for under state law.” 

For Mayor Ben Florsheim of Middletown, a city with a population of 47,717, a public place for smoking marijuana is not technically required. Still, Florsheim said the city is not planning to place any restrictions on public smoking beyond those already in place, primarily due to questions of necessity and equity. 

“Our attitude has been to wait and see, and if there are issues, then we can look at instituting restrictions,” Florsheim said. “We’ve previously explored bans on cigarette smoking in public parks or sidewalks, but after talking to our health and police departments, there were real questions about whether enforcing a law like that would be a good or equitable use of resources.”  

At just over 6000 residents, Essex falls well short of the legal requirement. Still, First Selectman Norm Needleman said he is also still navigating what restrictions on public marijuana consumption will look like in town. 

Needleman said he does not anticipate marijuana smoking in public will become a major problem in Essex, and said he does not expect to designate a public smoking area for “people to stand around and get high,” as he is “not big on public intoxication.” 

Needleman said his priority is to find ways to restrict marijuana consumption from areas frequented by children. 

“We have a ban on smoking tobacco at our fields where kids play sports, and I’d like to extend that to our parks, to make sure that smoking in general doesn’t occur in places where kids will be,” Needleman said. “I’m not sure what we’re going to do about people walking down the sidewalk, because we’ve never really restricted smoking on the streets.” 

Tri-Town Youth Services Director Allison Abramson, whose organization serves Essex, Deep River and Chester, said she shares Needleman’s concern about smoking in areas where children typically gather, and said she hopes municipal leaders will “build in a safe radius around locations like public parks, playgrounds, schools and libraries.” 

David Melillo, of Clinton Youth & Family Services, warned that public consumption of marijuana can normalize drug use for adolescents. 

“If kids see people walking down the street or at the park smoking, it creates the perception that this is fine and normal, and I’m very worried about the repercussions of that,” Melillo said. “I would like to see it go beyond just where cigarette smoking is banned, because we have to do whatever we can to keep this from causing a huge increase in underage use of marijuana.” 

Still, Abramson cautioned that the solution is not banning public marijuana use entirely, which creates a situation where parents can only smoke legal marijuana at home around their children.

“We absolutely have concerns about all substance use in homes,” Abramson said. “The top contributors to adolescent substance use are reduced perception of harm of the product itself, and parent substance use of any kind directly impacts adolescent substance use.” 

Melillo was less sympathetic to the argument that banning public smoking could hurt children more.  

“What, I don’t want to smoke near my children, so I’m going to smoke near yours?” Melillo asked. “I find that people will do what they need to do.” 

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