On 18 June, the Connecticut legislature legalized recreational cannabis use for residents twenty-one and older. The bill changes state law to allow the government to tax and regulate the commercialization of cannabis products.
After the signing, Governor Ned Lamont said that the law is a first step at correcting the injustices and disparities of the War on Drugs. Gov. Lamont hopes that the new law will “eliminate the dangerous, unregulated market and support a new and equitable sector of our economy that will create jobs.”
While opponents argue that this could make the public less safe, Gov. Lamont highlighted the new funding included for “prevention and recovery services, which will be used to help prevent cannabis use by minors and to promote safe, healthy use of cannabis by those of legal age.”
The passage of this law comes after then-Gov. Dannel Malloy signed a bill that decriminalized possession of some cannabis products in 2011.
At the time, Gov. Malloy assured some that opposed the move that the state was “not legalizing the use of marijuana.” Instead, the decriminalization represented a modification to the law and that the government would continue “recognizing that the punishment should fit the crime, and acknowledging the effects of its application.”
The governor also believed that there still could be cases where charges would be pursued, for example, if a person were to tell marijuana to minors. However, it was also his position that the “state’s criminal justice resources could be more effectively utilized for convicting, incarcerating and supervising violent and more serious offenders.”
In 2012, the medical use of marijuana was legalized.
What changes to the law does the new bill include?
The details over how, where, and when dispensaries will open are unknown, but most expect it to be sometime in 2022. Lawmakers hope that legalization will also increase public revenue as a tax of 6.35% will be applied to cannabis products.
Possession and Public Use
While the commercialization aspects of the law will not take effect until next year, on 1 July, possession of small qualities of marijuana was legalized.
Possession of more than 1.5 ounces of marijuana or any other controlled substance will still be classified as a misdemeanor. For those under eighteen found with more than five ounces of a cannabis product with no criminal record will be given a warning, and “such person may be referred to a youth services bureau.” Consequences become more severe after the second infraction.
The law also protects cannabis users by making it illegal for the sole reason of a police stop to be that an officer smells cannabis. Also, it mandates that municipalities with populations larger than 50,000 must designate public areas where cannabis can be consumed publicly.
Righting Injustices of the Past
According to the American Civil Liberties Union, in Connecticut, Black residents are four times more likely than their white counterparts to be arrested for marijuana possession.
Today, recreational marijuana becomes legal for adults 21+ in Connecticut and Virginia.
The ACLU says:
▪️Black people are arrested for marijuana at 3.6x the rate of whites despite similar usage rates
▪️Racial disparities in arrests actually worsened in 31 states since 2010 pic.twitter.com/6jsgmqbNQ7
— AJ+ (@ajplus) July 1, 2021
This fact led some Democratic lawmakers to oppose an earlier draft that they felt did not include sufficient social measures to right this injustice.
The final bill also acknowledges the disproportionate impact the War on Drugs has had on communities of color and mandates that “least half of all initial licenses” be reserved for “social equity applicants.” More details on these programs will be released in the coming months.
Will criminal records be expunged?
The Connecticut law included a provision that allows certain convictions to be erased or expunged if they happened after 1 January 2000.
Convictions that occurred between 1 January 2000 – 1 July 2021 that qualify include,
- Possession of four ounces or less of a cannabis-type product
- Use, possession, or intent to use drug paraphernalia to “to store, contain or conceal, or to ingest, inhale or otherwise introduce into the human body cannabis.”
Additionally for those who were convicted of manufacturing, selling, gifting, transporting, or basically any other action to sell cannabis may have the ability to erase the conviction from their record. The law stipulates that an individual can appeal to have the sentence erased as long as the quantity in question is less than or equal to “four ounces or six plants grown inside such person’s own primary residence for personal use.”
Marijuana legalization — a national movement
Marijuana is still illegal at the federal level and is categorized as a Schedule I drug, meaning it was deemed unsafe even under medical supervision. Other Schedule I drugs include heroin and MDMA (or ecstasy).
This criminalization of cannabis formed part of the War on Drugs, where the federal government believed that by creating script rules for drugs, use and illegal commercialization would slow. It did not, and more importantly, it led to mass incarceration and an underfunded health system to help those suffering from addiction.
In 2012, Colorado and Washington became the first states to fully legalize the recreational use of cannabis. At the time, public support for full legalization stood at around twenty-eight percent.
Earlier this year, Pew Research published the findings of a poll that found ninety-one percent of voters support either medical legalization or medical and recreational use of cannabis, a rate never captured in any previous polling.
Over the past decade, sixteen more states have legalized recreational use. Many more have passed laws to allow medical use or to decriminalize possession. In addition to Connecticut, this year alone, New York, Virginia, New Mexico legalized cannabis for recreation use, Alabama’s state legislature legalized it for medical use, and Louisiana decriminalized possession.
The vast majority of Americans live in states where the use of cannabis is legal under state law, and most experts believe that it is only a matter of time before federal law catches up.