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Legalizing recreational marijuana debate grows in CT

January 22, 2019

HARTFORD — In the back-and-forth debate the past few years at the General Assembly over legalizing recreational marijuana, opponents have argued there is no standard Breathalyzer test for marijuana as there is for alcohol.

In anticipation of state legislators once again debating and possibly voting on legalizing recreational marijuana in Connecticut, Rep. Gail Lavielle, R-Wilton, has submitted a bill calling for a study of the issue.

Efforts to legalize marijuana have stalled in previous sessions of the General Assembly, but proponents are hoping that with large Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, and with Gov. Ned Lamont’s stated support, legalization will finally happen this year. But even proponents are skeptical.

Of the nine states where marijuana was legalized, only Vermont passed the measure legislatively. The rest were by referendum.

Several legalization bills are expected to be raised in both the House and Senate, but only one has been filed.

The legalization bill is from the Progressive Caucus. It was referred to the Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee for review.

The deadline for individual lawmakers to submit legislation has passed, but some committees still have until the second week of February to introduce bills. There’s also a backlog of legislation that has yet to make it into the electronic bill filing website.

There are five bills filed that touch on the topic of marijuana, including one that would expand the medical marijuana system to cover people with opioid use disorder. The Physicians Board rejected a proposal this summer that would have allowed it to become one of 31 conditions approved for the use of medical marijuana in the state. The board determined there wasn’t enough research to prove it helped.

Another bill would establish a fund for school districts to use to test vaping devices for evidence of tetrahydrocannabinol. Another bill would require medical marijuana to be included in the state’s prescription drug monitoring fund.

This is the first time a bill has been introduced requiring a road test for marijuana. Testing for the influence of marijuana is an imperfect science, and even roadside assessments are legally inconclusive.

While a blood-alcohol content of 0.08 percent or higher is accepted as the threshold for a DUI charge, blood tests for marijuana aren’t as reliable a measure of physical impairment. Cannabinoids are metabolized differently depending on the person and the way it was ingested.

Even if recreational marijuana isn’t legalized in Connecticut, it was legalized recently in nearby Massachusetts, and many Connecticut residents have been driving back and forth over the border to buy pot.

In Massachusetts, lawmakers convened a special panel to examine the issue.

The panel includes a broad range of public safety, law enforcement, civil rights, transportation and health experts. The law requires them to conduct a comprehensive study on drug-impaired driving regulations and then submit a report with recommendations to the legislature.

The panel will primarily study and review the ability of law enforcement to “properly test impaired operators and prevent impaired operation of motor vehicles,” including scientific, medical, and technological types of testing, as well as the impact on drivers’ rights.

Back in Connecticut, those opposed to legalization plan to use the driving-while-impaired strategy as one of their main bullets.

“Do members of the public want increased DUI while they are driving with their families, while their kids are riding bikes, while they are jogging?” asked William Huhn, spokesman for the Smart Approaches for Marijuana. “Do the public surveys ask about that?”

When legalization was hotly debated in 2017, members of the Connecticut Police Chiefs Association told legislators they also had concerns about not having a standard Breathalyzer test for marijuana.

The police chiefs said they were also concerned arrests made for being under the influence would not hold up in court.

On the overall legalization question, the most recent poll in Connecticut was conducted in October 2017 by Sacred Heart University. Results suggested that 71 percent of Connecticut residents strongly supported or somewhat supported legalizing and taxing marijuana at that time, in the context of the state’s budget crisis.

The Office of Fiscal Analysis estimated last year that Connecticut could bring in $45.4 million to $104.6 million a year if it legalizes marijuana in the same way it’s been done in Massachusetts or Colorado.

Connecticut is still facing a substantial two-year, multi-billion budget deficit.

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