During a Senate committee hearing in Connecticut on Monday, individuals affiliated with the anti-cannabis legalization group Smart Approaches to Marijuana, or in agreement with its cause, turned a conversation about allocation of cannabis tax revenue into one about the dangers of cannabis, urging state lawmakers to slow down on legalization.
The Senate Finance Revenue and Bonding Committee began its public hearing on SB 1138 with emotional testimony from Susan Klein, whose husband was killed by a cannabis-impaired driver in 2015.
“To then have the doctor come in and tell me my husband was dead and then to find out this young 18 year old was driving high?” she said through tears. “I can’t even say I’m functioning yet.”
SAM has organized similar efforts in recent months in other Democratic-controlled statehouses in Illinois, New York and New Jersey, where efforts to pass adult use legalization bills will come down to the wire as legislative sessions wind down in the coming weeks.
SB 1138 would use revenue from three different state taxes on cannabis to fund a new Community Development Corporation Trust Fund, which would provide dollars for early literacy education and other programs in underserved communities.
Steven Hernandez, the interim executive director of the Commission on Women, Children and Seniors, a non-partisan research arm of the Connecticut General Assembly that advocates for best policy practices on behalf of those populations in under-served communities, told lawmakers that he welcomes the bill and dedicated dollars for programs where America’s drug war has hit hardest.
“We can’t be afraid of allowing people who are chronically poor and intergenerationally poor to be part of the conversation about building wealth,” he said.
Luke Nifaratos, SAM’s chief of staff, said that lawmakers should seek to raise revenue elsewhere for these goals. He said that cannabis corporations — what SAM calls “Big Tobacco 2.0” — would be the primary beneficiaries of legalization, not Connecticut’s poor communities.
“I don’t know why we should marry noble ends with harmful means,” he said.
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Bruce Morris, a former Connecticut legislator and board member of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators, pleaded with his former colleagues not to legalize cannabis. He said he tried cannabis in high school and struggled with dependence to other substances in the years afterward.
“I know ‘til this day I have accomplished a lot, but not what I could have accomplished had I not used those drugs,” he told the committee.
Representative Jason Rojas, a Hartford Democrat, pushed back forcefully on the narrative that had enveloped the hearing, which was sparsely attended by lawmakers.
“You’re painting a picture of a Reefer Madness type of world where people are jumping out of windows,” he told Morris.
SAM also held a press conference with Republican members of the legislature before the hearing. It’s unclear, given the low attendance, what effect the testimony will have with Connecticut’s General Assembly, which is considering three major cannabis-related bills:
- SB 1138, the primary subject of the day’s hearing, would tax cannabis at 6.35% at the retail level. Taxes would also be levied at $35 per ounce once it is transferred from growers and $13.50 per ounce for trim, with a 3% tax for localities that choose to have retail sales. Revenue would go through the Community Development Corporation Trust Fund toward early literacy programs and other programs in low-income areas of the state;
- SB 1085 would legalize cannabis and create a process to expunge the records of those with past cannabis convictions;
- HB 7371 would regulate the sale of cannabis and establish a Cannabis Commission. The bill also allows applicants who have a previous cannabis conviction to apply for ‘equity’ status on a cannabis business application.