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Connecticut Weighs Adult-Use Cannabis Legalization Options

With a multitude of cannabis-related bills in the legislature this year, it appears that Connecticut lawmakers are willing to consider expanding the state’s medical marijuana program, as well as adult-use legalization. While the active cannabis conversation in Hartford means the state is likely to move forward on policy reform in one way or another, the exact path remains unclear, according to advocates.

Lawmakers are considering three adult-use legalization bills so far this session: HB 6863, SB 744 and HB 5595, which is the most robust adult-use legislation, according to Connecticut NORML Executive Director Paul Kirchberg.

Several other cannabis related bills have also been introduced this year, including efforts to add chronic pain, fibromyalgia and opioid disorder as qualifying conditions to the state’s medical program; allow patients to grow their own plants and detect impaired drivers, among others.

“Some of them are just shells with no real language. Some of them have language on various aspects of how the process works in Connecticut,” said Matt Simon, legislative analyst and New England political director for the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP). “In some states, you can only have one bill on a subject in a session. In Connecticut, you often have a bunch. As the session goes on, they get consolidated into one bill and a legislator who has a strong feeling about one aspect of the issue might put in a bill that focuses on that aspect of the issue and ignores everything else. They’re doing that hoping they can get what they want included in the bill that ends up moving. So, it’s just a really different process in Connecticut. … The real question is what path this will end up taking through the legislature.”

RELATED: 2019 State Cannabis Legislation: The Bills to Watch

Connecticut NORML is working to support the expansion of the medical program this year, as well as advocate for adult-use legalization, Kirchberg said.

“Connecticut NORML has a multi-pronged approach,” he said. “Just because adult-use is on the table, it doesn’t mean we take medical off. We’re still pushing medical advocacy. We’re still pushing improvements on the medical field because we do not want the medical program to go away when adult-use does become legalized. Adult-use should not trump medical use.”

Tying Up Loose Ends

As the adult-use conversation unfolds in the statehouse, even HB 5595, the most detailed adult-use bill thus far, still has some issues to work out, Kirchberg said. It would give the state’s licensed medical marijuana businesses the first chance at adult-use licenses, which may put a strain on patient supply, Kirchberg said.

“There are concerns with that, considering how the medical program has been run up until this timeframe, where there have been shortages,” he said. “Potentially allowing the [medical] grow facilities sole access day one … could hinder the medical patients, and that has been explicitly explained to the legislators, and they do not want that happening.”

Another movement in the state is toward social equity and giving back to communities that were most harmed by the war on drugs. While HB 5595 includes a social equity component, that area of the legislation is lacking, Kirchberg said, which could end up killing the bill.

“It really misses the shot of what Connecticut could have done with equity,” he said. “So, because of that, it looks like that bill will not make it out of committee.”

 “We don’t want to give opportunity to a select few because that’s like fishing on a single line. It’s better … to cast a larger net to get more ground. That’s where we’re trying to push legalization, … to give small business an opportunity to flourish.”

-Paul Kirchberg, Executive Director, Connecticut NORML

If the state allows medical cannabis businesses first access to the adult-use market, it will not be successful in reinvesting revenue into the communities most impacted by the war on drugs, Kirchberg said. Lawmakers must also separate equity from expungement, ideas that Kirchberg said have become synonymous in the statehouse.

“There were two stipulations in [HB 5595],” he said. “One said that they would expunge criminal records, and the second one was that they were going to put 25 percent of the cannabis-related businesses in what they deemed ‘economic centers.’ Those economic centers were our areas that were disenfranchised due to the war on drugs and communities being wrongfully policed, so that’s great in theory, but it completely missed the whole shot of equity. All it stated was we’re going to release people based on cannabis crimes, and we’re going to put 25 percent of businesses in communities that were disenfranchised. OK, but that doesn’t give them money. That just says you’re putting a business there.”

Kirchberg would also like to see adult-use legislation that allows small businesses to thrive. “We don’t want to give opportunity to a select few because that’s like fishing on a single line,” he said. “It’s better … to cast a larger net to get more ground. That’s where we’re trying to push legalization, … to give small business an opportunity to flourish.”

Connecticut NORML is also urging for social clubs that will allow on-site consumption, Kirchberg added.

“To make the assumption that everybody over the age of 21 has a room where they can consume in that they own and nobody else is going to be affected by is very narrow-sighted,” he said. “The disparity of income is vast in this state, and [you cannot] make the assumption … that there aren’t people living in apartments, there aren’t people living in government housing—all of those things we’re trying to address here, as well, to make sure that, again, legislation and the industry here is set up to flourish.”

Finding the Best Path Forward

The bills that do end up with the most support—even if they are not well-detailed—will go to committee, where more details will be announced. Then, pending the outcome of the committee votes, the legislation would go to the House and Senate floors, where they will be combined into one bill.

“The good news is, the mood is on,” Simon said. “They’re really talking about these things, and soon I expect there will be public hearings and public committee action advancing one or more of these bills.”

The Democrat-controlled legislature has made it a priority this session to legalize cannabis, Kirchberg added, and Gov. Ned Lamont supports legalization and will likely sign adult-use legislation into law, should legislators approve a bill.

“Gov. Lamont plainly supports it. Senate and House leaders have both plainly said that they support it, and there have been discussions ongoing among the leaders of both chambers of the legislature and the governor’s office and advocates,” Simon said. “It’s all about trying to figure out where it’s going to move first, how it’s going to move, and trying to [determine] the best path to have a bill proceed and make good policy so that at the end of the session we can be happy with the bill.”

Both MPP and NORML will continue advocacy efforts this legislative session, as part of both the medical and adult-use discussions.

“As Connecticut NORML, [we] have been advocating and have been reaching out to Republican candidates to tell them that cannabis should not be a partisan issue and that addressing it head-on and … talking about what could be is a smarter approach than to put up barriers and say, ‘No, no, no,’ because it’s going to happen,” Kirchberg said. “The residents of Connecticut have stated that they support cannabis, and that was over two years ago. The percentage base has only gone up."

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