On Monday, Connecticut lawmakers debated for hours an adult use cannabis legalization bill put forth by legislative leaders on behalf of Governor Ned Lamont. Topics like expungement and taxes received a lot of airtime, while impaired driving and law enforcement issues emerged as potential hurdles to the bill’s passage.
The state’s Judiciary Committee met for a public hearing on the 108-page Senate Bill 16 that stretched more than four hours, but wrapped without a vote. The bill would allow adults 21 and older to buy 1.5 ounces of cannabis. If the bill is passed, tax revenue projections are expected to be $59.9 million in 2024, the program’s first full year, with $11.9 million going to host municipalities.
Connecticut borders Massachusetts, where voters legalized cannabis for adult use in 2016, Rhode Island, where adult use legalization discussions are ongoing, and New York, where Governor Andrew Cuomo has proposed legalization through his budget and has urged a “regional approach” to legalization.
Jonathan Harris, senior adviser to Governor Lamont, said that “times have changed rapidly,” with cannabis surrounding the state. “We can’t stick our heads in the sand.”
Harris added, “We need to come together and figure out how to most effectively protect our children and public health and safety. We have to recognize that the war on drugs has had a tremendously destructive impact on certain communities. And we must redress these negative impacts, not just because it’s the right thing to do, but it will also help more people participate in our economy, be self-sufficient and lead to the economic growth that we all desire.”
Expungement of records equity came up several times during the hearing. The “Cannabis Equity Commission” would make equity-related recommendations to the General Assembly and the governor by January 2021.
The committee discussed cannabis taxes, both how they might be structured and how they’d compare to other states, with a focus on the illicit market. Would Connecticut’s cannabis market be “competitive” with the unregulated, unlicensed market, for example? What about with neighboring states?
Committee Chair Steven Stafstrom asked John Biello, acting commissioner of the Department of Revenue Services, about the cannabis tax structure in Massachusetts.
Biello said that the primary difference is with the excise tax. The proposed tax in Connecticut would be based on weight and not tied to the price of the product, Biello said.
“The reason for that is because experience has shown that the price of cannabis product declines significantly over time,” he said.
Stafstrom asked Biello if legal adult use sales in Connecticut, as proposed, would be “competitive” with Massachusetts.
“I think part of the goal of this is to stop folks from driving across the border and driving back and the like,” Stafstrom said.
Biello started by saying that it was a “great question,” adding, “It certainly wouldn’t incentivize people to cross the border to purchase in Massachusetts.”
Miriam Delphin-Rittmon, commissioner of the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, said the bill “recognizes that the trend in nearby states, including Massachusetts, Maine and Vermont and nationally, is to legalize adult use of recreational cannabis.”
This means that “cannabis will be easily accessible to Connecticut citizens,” she added. “This bill offers a thoughtful framework in which Connecticut will be able to develop policy and thinking related to the cultivation, manufacture, sale, possession and use of cannabis that prioritizes public health, public safety and social justice.”
Michelle Seagull, commissioner for the Department of Consumer Protection, testified in support of SB 16.
“As has been emphasized, our neighboring states currently have, or are certainly considering having, an adult use cannabis marketplace. So, we really need to be prepared in Connecticut to have a marketplace, as well, where people here can get safe product,” Seagull said, adding that her department looks forward to “taking part in the equity commission that this bill creates to address the inequities that the historic drug policies have created.”
The conversation around impaired driving focused on the difficulties that arise without a reliable test for impairment, and the costs of Drug Recognition Experts.
Senator Dan Champagne talked about the burden that some smaller communities might face if their police departments only have a handful of officers and a Drug Recognition Expert’s roadside test to determine impaired driving takes 30 minutes.
“I think that’s one of the major stumbling blocks for me, because I don’t wanna put anybody in danger,” Champagne said.
Harris, the adviser to Governor Lamont, spoke about the proposal that employers be precluded from determining a hire based solely on a drug screening, or later terminating an employee based on a positive drug test.
“We have actually had conversations, you should know, with some employers, including a very large employer in the state. And there are some issues that are raised by that, and we are willing to discuss whether we need to make some changes there,” Harris said. There was discussion about safety-sensitive employees, like bus drivers or amusement park ride operators, not being under this umbrella.
There was a union discussion during the public hearing, too. Keri Hoehne, assistant to the president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 371, testified in support of the legislation, under one condition.
“The UFCW supports the legalization of recreational cannabis in Connecticut, only with the addition of labor peace agreements as a condition of cannabis licensure and renewal,” Hoehne said.
“Labor peace agreements are good for the health and safety of workers and the product.”