Debate on adult-use cannabis legalization finally got its day on the Connecticut House floor, where reform proponents prevailed during a special session Wednesday evening.
After House Republicans denied a vote in the regular order of the legislative session through the threat of a filibuster June 9—the final day before adjournment—lawmakers returned to the lower chamber and deliberated for more than seven hours June 16. In the end, legalization efforts prevailed in a 76-62 vote on an amended version of Senate Bill 1201.
The Senate, which passed the legislation in a 19-12 vote the previous day, took up the House’s amended version of the bill for final approval Thursday morning and concurred to push passage through the Legislature. Pending Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont’s signature, Connecticut will be the 19th state to legalize adult-use cannabis. And with some of the social equity language dialed back in this latest version of the bill, Lamont’s signature seems more likely than in previous days.
“Connecticut is just the latest domino to fall as states begin to repeal their failed prohibition of marijuana and replace it with a sensible system of legalization and regulation,” National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) Executive Director Erik Altieri said in a statement.
“Never before has the momentum for legalization looked as strong as it does in 2021, with four state legislatures already approving bills to ensure state law reflects the overwhelming will of their state residents in just a few short months,” he said. New York, Virginia and New Mexico have also passed adult-use bills this year.
The Connecticut measure will allow adults to possess up to 1.5 ounces of cannabis flower or an equivalent amount of concentrate in public, and up to 5 ounces in their homes, beginning July 1, 2021. Commercial sales could begin as soon as May 2022.
The roughly 300-page bill has been many years in the making and includes several changes and modifications over that time, said Democratic Rep. Steve Stafstrom, who co-chairs the Joint Judiciary Committee and co-sponsored a previous version of the adult-use bill earlier in the regular legislative session.
“Connecticut’s time has finally come,” Stafstrom said in his opening remarks Wednesday. “Today, we take the next step as this chamber in recognizing that the war on drugs has failed us, and the criminalization of cannabis was the wrong course of action for our state and for our nation.”
Legalization in Connecticut will be heavily regulated, he said. The bill limits possession, purchase amounts and dosage; restricts packaging and advertising; bans smoking and vaping in most public locations; allows local municipalities to set appropriate zoning; increases the enforcement and intervention of impaired driving; provides protection to employers; and increases drug prevention funding, Stafstrom said.
The legislation also sets up a council to address social equity issues, although this became a point of contention within the Legislature. The Senate passed an amendment Tuesday, one that would have expanded social equity eligibility for prospective entrepreneurs—but this drew the ire of Lamont, who vowed to veto the bill if that language was not addressed in the House. The House acted accordingly, rejecting the Senate’s amendment by a 125-0 vote.
The rejected Senate amendment would have allowed those with previous drug arrests or convictions a better chance to enter the state-legal cannabis industry through winning social equity licenses made available through the bill.
Republican Rep. Craig Fishbein, a ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, said he was puzzled about the House proponents’ decision to nix that provision that was approved by the Senate in a 26-4 vote the previous day.
“I’m a bit confused, because all through the committee hearings [in] the discussions about this we heard from individuals that had been previously convicted of drug crimes looking for their chance to engage in this market, and they were given assurances that they would be part of that,” he said. “What happened in the Senate was overwhelmingly approving of the amendment.”
Instead of jeopardizing the entire bill over social equity language Lamont didn’t agree with, House members passed their own amendment, which whittled down the Senate’s multi-subject provision to only include one item: banning elected officials from participating in the cannabis industry laid out in the bill for two years after leaving the General Assembly. That amendment passed, 128-0.
When discussion continued on the underlying bill, Fishbein was the main opponent who addressed concerns with the legislation. The first conflict he mentioned was the oath he said he took to uphold the U.S. Constitution, stating that the Supremacy Clause in Article VI establishes that federal law takes precedence over state laws.
Other Republicans, and some Democrats, voiced similar concerns as lawmakers in other states who recently voted against adult-use legalization measures in their legislatures. Public safety and protecting youth were the main two mentioned by Republican Rep. Tom O’Dea.
“This is the most important vote that I will take in my nine years here, and I don’t say that lightly,” he said. “Mark my words: people will die when we pass this bill, because of this bill. Because of recreational marijuana being sold in Connecticut, more people will die.”
O’Dea offered an amendment to increase the legal age for adult-use cannabis from 21 to 25 years. He said he believed the commercialization of cannabis will harm the state’s youth. The amendment was rejected.
Having two young children himself, Stafstrom said he agreed that he does not want cannabis in the hands of youth.
“But I think actually what we are doing in this bill is putting in place a regulated marketplace,” Stafstrom said. “We are putting in place protections with respect to container sizes and dosage limits, and additional dollars for prevention, and the like, all of which are necessary in many respects because cannabis is legal on our borders whether we like it or not.”
To the north, Massachusetts legalized cannabis through a 2016 ballot measure. And to the west, New York’s Legislature legalized cannabis earlier this year.
The war on drugs has failed Connecticut’s youth, failed its cities and has led to disparate impacts, Stafstrom said. That’s why the bill is titled “An act concerning responsible and equitable regulation of adult-use cannabis,” he said.
Later in the debate, Democratic Rep. Juan Candelaria provided an example of how an unregulated cannabis market affected his family.
“I had a niece who passed away because she was smoking marijuana and it was laced with PCP (phencyclidine),” he said. “The reason that I came around in support of adult-use cannabis is for that same reason—to protect the children. I am a father. I do have children. And I don’t want to see my children go through this path.
“What we are trying to attempt with this bill is to ensure that these kids do not have access.”
Democratic Rep. Jason Rojas, who as House majority leader helped negotiations between the governor’s office and the Legislature to agree upon the final version of the bill, said that now is the time to move in a different direction after a long and complicated road.
“It began with a federal prohibition on marijuana in 1937,” he said. “It was complicated by a war on drugs launched in 1971 that took a tough-on-crime approach—an approach that has impacted the lives of millions of Americans whose involvement with the use of a substance should have been treated as a public health matter rather than a criminal justice matter.”