After years of failed attempts, Connecticut legalized recreational marijuana on Tuesday, laying the groundwork to direct cannabis revenue into communities of color that have long been targeted by policies criminalizing the drug.
Gov. Ned Lamont, a Democrat, signed a bill to legalize the use and cultivation of recreational cannabis and expunge thousands of past convictions for possession, after both houses of the state legislature passed the bill last week.
With his signature, Connecticut became the 19th state to legalize recreational marijuana and the fifth to do so this year after New Mexico, New York, Virginia and New Jersey.
“We had a chance to learn from others, and I think we got it right here in the state of Connecticut,” Mr. Lamont said Tuesday as he signed the bill into law.
The legislation is set to end an era of disproportionate convictions for marijuana possession against communities of color and pave the way for low-income residents to participate in the cannabis marketplace, injecting fresh revenue into the state’s economy and social welfare programs.
When the law takes effect July 1, using recreational marijuana will be legal and adults 21 and older will be allowed to possess up to one and a half ounces.
The Connecticut Department of Consumer Protection said it was aiming to begin issuing licenses to grow and sell marijuana by the end of next year. Half of all licenses will be issued to low-income applicants.
People will also be allowed to grow up to three mature plants and three immature plants for personal use starting in July 2023.
Those convicted of possession from Jan. 1, 2000 through Sept. 30, 2015 will have their records automatically cleared beginning in 2023. People with convictions from outside this time period can apply to have their records expunged starting next July.
“This has been years in the making,” said DeVaughn Ward, senior legislative council for the Marijuana Policy Project, a nationwide advocacy organization for marijuana legalization and one of the proponents of Connecticut’s bill. “The amount of revenue that will be generated and directed back into our distressed communities is an unprecedented investment in communities of color.”
A study by the University of Connecticut found that the marijuana industry could generate between $784 million and $952 million in revenue in the state over five years. That would be enough to help jump start the state’s economic recovery from the pandemic, the study’s authors said.
Tuesday’s signing marks an end to years of failed efforts to legalize the drug after the state approved it for medical use in 2012. Years later, dispensaries were still fighting to open for business.
People of color have been disproportionately penalized for marijuana possession in Connecticut, which decriminalized the possession of less than half an ounce of marijuana in 2011. Black people in the state were four times more likely to be arrested than white people for possession of marijuana, according to a report published last year by the American Civil Liberties Union.
Under the new law, the smell of marijuana alone will no longer be legal grounds to stop and search people. Nor will the suspected possession of up to five ounces.
“The war on cannabis, which was at its core a war on people in Black and Brown communities, not only caused injustices and increased disparities in our state, it did little to protect public health and safety,” Mr. Lamont said in a statement last week, after the State Senate passed the bill.
“We’re not only effectively modernizing our laws and addressing inequities, we’re keeping Connecticut economically competitive with our neighboring states,” he said.
Polls have shown that Americans overwhelmingly support legalization, with one study from the Pew Research Center this year finding that 60 percent of adults believe marijuana should be legal for medical and recreational use, while 31 percent support legalizing it for medical use only.
The Connecticut bill had a chaotic journey through the legislature. Mr. Lamont had previously threatened to veto the bill over a late amendment by the State Senate, which would have given preferential status to retail license applicants with past records of selling or using marijuana. House members stripped the bill of the provision before passing it last Wednesday.
Debate continued to rage on the floor of the State Senate Thursday in the final hours before the bill was passed by a 16-11 margin. Legislators who pushed back on the bill criticized its “social equity” provision, which calls for half of retail licenses to be issued to low-income applicants, and raised concerns about addiction and crime.
But State Senator Martin Looney, a Democrat and one of the legislation’s sponsors, argued that a regulated cannabis industry would make marijuana consumption safer and pointed to the profits the state stood to make.
“People drank before Prohibition, people drank during Prohibition, but the problem was profits went to organized crime rather than a regulated tax enterprise,” Mr. Looney said.
“Cannabis has been available for so long,” he added. “The reality is, it is already here.”