Connecticut battle over legal weed focuses on allowing homegrown cannabis and providing help for those arrested in the war on drugs

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Christopher Keating, Hartford Courant
·5 min read
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A coalition of groups called Tuesday for allowing all Connecticut adults to grow their own marijuana and helping those who have been arrested on marijuana charges in the past as part of the effort to legalize recreational marijuana.

About 100 people gathered for a rally outside the Legislative Office Building in Hartford to push for the controversial bill that top legislators say has about a 50-50 chance of passage as the legislature heads toward adjournment on June 9.

The advocates are pushing for a bill that has passed the legislature’s labor committee, which is separate from Gov. Ned Lamont’s 207-page legalization bill that has passed the judiciary committee.

The group is pushing for homegrown, which is allowed under Lamont’s bill only for those who qualify for medicinal marijuana. Lawmakers sharply disagree over homegrown as some say there would be no regulations and no tax money for the state. Some say a key component is making sure that the product is safe and properly regulated by the state, which they say is preferable to the current system of the black market.

“The difference between our bill and the governor’s bill includes homegrown for everybody — not just medical patients,” said Rep. Anne Hughes, an Easton Democrat who is among the most liberal legislators. “You either end the prohibition or you don’t. You know what I mean? You either sort of keep a little systemic racism or you don’t. We’re in favor of not keeping it.”

Jason Ortiz, president of the Minority Cannabis Business Association and an organizer of the rally, said another key difference between the bills is who would get to sell marijuana in Connecticut if recreational sales are legalized. Some lawmakers say those who have been arrested for marijuana-related crimes, such as possession, should get the chance to be involved in new marijuana businesses, such as cultivation facilities or retail dispensaries.

Under the labor bill, Ortiz said he would qualify as an “equity applicant” who would go to the front of the the line in his goal of getting involved with others for the chance to open a marijuana cultivation facility. He says he was arrested for possession of marijuana at the age of 16 when he was in high school, but he received accelerated rehabilitation and youthful offender status and never served time in prison.

The labor bill would help those who were arrested during the federal war on drugs by allowing them to get involved in the new marijuana businesses. Sen. Doug McCrory, a Hartford Democrat, says that a special fund should be established with money from future marijuana sales for those who do not want to get involved in the marijuana industry but instead want to open a restaurant, bakery or other business.

“In the governor’s bill, the big businesses go first,” Ortiz said. “The whole point of the equity applicant is we would have a separate lane.”

Despite some differences among lawmakers, Lamont told reporters Tuesday in Hartford that he believes there is general consensus on various aspects of recreational legalization.

“I think we have broad agreement — don’t we? — that we want this to be legal, we want this to be regulated, and lead with public health,” Lamont said. “Now, there’s always a scramble about who gets the money and how much for this group versus that group — so I’ll watch that and make sure it stays within the bounds. I think we all agree we want resources to go to the most distressed communities. I want it to go to economic development. I want it to go to mental health and addiction services. As long as we’re broadly within those parameters, I think we’ve got a deal.”

Regarding some strong statements made by legislators, Lamont said, “I don’t lose a lot of sleep on the rhetoric. ... If we don’t draw too many lines in the sand, we’re going to get there.”

Some advocates, though, said there is much more work to do in the coming weeks and months.

“The people have been clear in what they want — equity, home grow and labor peace, and those demands are outlined in HB 6377,” said Rep. Robyn Porter, an influential New Haven Democrat who is pushing for the bill. “Governor Lamont has committed to signing an equitable cannabis legalization bill, so let’s send him HB 6377 as soon as possible and finally end this horrific war on our Black, brown and poor communities once and for all.”

Sen. Julie Kushner, a Danbury Democrat who co-chairs the labor committee with Porter, said at the rally that the equity provisions are essential.

“Without it, we say this bill goes nowhere,” Kushner said.

One of the biggest sticking points is lawmakers do not agree on how the marijuana tax money should be spent. Lamont’s bill calls for 55% of the money going to initiatives to help communities that were harmed the most during the war on drugs, 15% for mental health and prevention and 30% to the state’s general fund to administer the marijuana program at agencies such as the state consumer protection department for regulations, testing, licensing and oversight.

Sen. Gary Winfield, a New Haven Democrat who is a member of the legislature’s Black and Puerto Rican Caucus, says the final bill needs to have more equity provisions that would include parts of the judiciary bill and the labor bill. Both bills would allow workers in new marijuana jobs to join unions and also call for workforce development to help obtain employment for those with past convictions for marijuana-related crimes.

House Speaker Matt Ritter, who is known as one of the best predictors of vote counts at the Capitol, says the multiple objections need to be resolved in the coming weeks and months if the legislature is to pass a marijuana bill this year. He said compromises must be made if the bill is going to succeed. Support from key Democratic lawmakers like Winfield and Porter will be crucial to the bill’s passage.

Christopher Keating can be reached at ckeating@courant.com.