AP NEWS

Don’t rush marijuana legalization law

March 28, 2019

Legislation legalizing over-the-counter retail sales of marijuana in Connecticut cleared its first hurdle Monday when the proposal narrowly passed a key committee.

The General Law Committee advanced HB 7371, on a 10-8 vote. The law committee has oversight of consumer protection, fair trade and sales practices.

The bill establishes a Cannabis Control Commission appointed by the governor and reporting to the Department of Consumer Protection.

The Cannabis Commission would have regulatory control of marijuana sales. The bill authorizes the commission to:

• Establish regulations for sale of up to 1.5 ounces of marijuana to people aged 21 or older. Existing medical marijuana dispensaries, including one in Montville and one approved in Groton, would be granted retail licenses.

• Establish health, safety and security requirements for marijuana retailers and commercial growers.

• Establish licensing procedures and fees for retail distribution and marijuana cultivation facilities.

• Establish guidelines prohibiting the retail sale or marketing of marijuana products to children.

• Develop a warning label about the risks and benefits of marijuana use.

The bill allows any town to prohibit completely or pass zoning restrictions for a marijuana retail dispensary. Recreational marijuana consumption would be legal only in private settings, and not in public buildings.

The bill would expunge criminal records of those with prior convictions for possessing small amounts of marijuana.

The Cannabis Control Commission is tasked with recommending whether adults over age 21 may cultivate their own cannabis plants for personal use. The bill mandates those recommendations be presented in January 2020.

In 2012, Connecticut legalized marijuana for medical use. That legislation won wide bipartisan support. Monday’s vote in the General Law Committee broke along party lines with Democrats in favor and Republicans opposed.

One of those opposed was Rep. Holly Cheeseman of East Lyme. Cheeseman is the ranking Republican on the General Law Committee.

“There are studies that show marijuana has a negative impact on brain development in people under the age of 25,” Cheeseman told The Day. “The marijuana for sale today is much more potent than what was available on the black market 10 years ago.”

Cheeseman said the committee heard testimony that black-market marijuana sales remain strong in Colorado, California and Oregon where marijuana is legal. She voiced concern about lost job opportunities for people seeking employment at Electric Boat, or any employer that requires a federal security clearance. People who test positive for marijuana use are not issued federal security clearances.

“Let’s not pretend there is no downside to this,” Cheeseman said. “Let’s learn all we can about the downside before we make marijuana legal.”

Two other legislative committees are studying versions of marijuana legalization. The Finance Committee is preparing the taxing portion. The Judiciary Committee is investigating health and safety issues and expunging past criminal convictions. All three versions will be merged into one package for the House and Senate to consider before the session ends in June.

Gov. Ned Lamont has declared support for legalized marijuana. Ten states have legalized it, including New England neighbors Massachusetts, Vermont and Maine.

This newspaper sees the wisdom of Connecticut adapting its own standards and regulatory control over marijuana sales. We believe legalized pot, with strict guidelines, enforcement, fees and fines, will create a safer environment for Connecticut residents who partake. Bringing marijuana sales under state regulation also will generate much needed revenues, with early estimates ranging north of $30 million annually.

But we also agree with Rep. Cheeseman that the legislature, in its rush to meet a June deadline, is leaving too much policy making control in the hands of the Cannabis Commission. The bill requires members to vote on legalizing marijuana without knowing the details of how that process plays out.

A more prudent course would be to pass legislation this session that creates the Cannabis Commission and instructs it to build a business model for retail marijuana sales. In other words, task the commission with developing a fully-formed plan.

Give the commission a January 2020 deadline to report back with regulatory recommendations, estimated costs and a licensing fee structure to better predict revenues. The legislature could then consider each recommendation in the package and vote in the short session next year.

The Day supports legalizing marijuana in Connecticut. However, we should know fully what it is we are signing up for before we cross into this new frontier.

Slow the process down and get it right.