The state Senate was debating a long-awaited bill Monday night that will legalize the recreational use of cannabis, hours after lawmakers announced they had reached a compromise on how to ensure the new industry will benefit those residents adversely affected by the nation’s war on drugs.
The anticipated vote on the wide-ranging and complex bill, which could happen early Tuesday morning following what’s expected to be a lengthy debate, marks the culmination of years of failed efforts to pass legislation that legalizes a drug in Connecticut which continues to be illegal under federal law.
“We’ve seen what’s been wrought by having a war on drugs. Whole communities have been decimated,” said state Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, co-chairman of the legislature’s Judiciary Committee. He provided a history of how the drug once sold in pharmacies in the 19th century eventually became associated with Mexican immigrants and subsequently criminalized.
“There are vestigial ways in which communities are still impacted by what we were doing,” he said. “We should never have made cannabis an illegal drug.”
If the bill clears the Senate and the House of Representatives and is signed into law by Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont, who has made legalization a key priority this session, proponents said Connecticut will join 18 other states that already allow recreational marijuana possession and use.
Critics, however, questioned why Connecticut needs to follow that path. Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, the top Republican senator on the Judiciary Committee who supported Connecticut’s existing medical marijuana program, voiced concern about numerous possible implications of recreational cannabis.
“I think it’s a big mistake,” he said, arguing it sends a “horrible message” to young people. “How many had parents who said, ‘If all your friends jumped off a bridge, would you do that?’ No. All of a handful of other states are doing this. Why should we?”
Under the bill, it would be legal for people 21 years and older to possess and use cannabis beginning July 1. A person would be allowed to have up to 1.5 ounces, with an additional five ounces secured in their home or vehicle. Homegrown cannabis, however, will not counted toward that allowed amount.
Beginning Oct. 1, 2022, the legislation makes it legal for medical marijuana patients in the state to have three mature and three immature plants, with a limit of 12 plants per household. By July 1, 2023, any adult in Connecticut will be allowed to have the same amount of plants.
Meanwhile, the retail sale of cannabis is expected to begin in May 2022. Under the program, municipalities will receive new revenue generated by a 3% local sales tax on gross receipts based on retail cannabis sales within their borders.
Besides the 6.35% state sales tax, the state will generate new revenue based on the levels of THC, the marijuana plant’s main psychoactive component, in the different products. Under this proposed tax rate structure, Connecticut’s taxes will be lower than New York’s and around the same as Massachusetts’ rates, lawmakers said.
While Connecticut has lagged behind its neighbors in finally reaching a deal after years of attempts, Senate President Pro Tempore Martin Looney, D-New Haven, said the state has benefitted from watching how other states have handled legalizing a drug that still remains illegal under federal law and finding ways to help local entrepreneurs who want to get into the marijuana business.
“We’ve seen problems in other states where out-of-state financed enterprises come in and swoop up all the licenses,” he said.
Under Connecticut’s bill, half of the initial licenses to be issued for the new industry through a lottery system, such as retailers and cultivators, will be reserved for so-called social equity applicants, those negatively impacted by the past drug laws. A new 15-person, state-funded Social Equity Council will determine the final rules for social equity applicants, review their applications and allocate $50 million in state borrowing to help entrepreneurs in targeted communities with loans and workforce training.
Meanwhile, the bill also automatically erases certain drug possession convictions that occurred between Jan. 1, 2000, and Oct. 1, 2015. If someone’s conviction falls outside that time period, they can petition to have it erased.
This story has been corrected to show that possession and use of cannabis would be legal beginning July 1, not Jan. 1, 2022.
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