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Ganim, Bridgeport grapple with recreational marijuana

May 23, 2019

BRIDGEPORT — A year ago, during his unsuccessful run for governor, Mayor Joe Ganim issued a forceful call to legalize cannabis and regulate it like alcohol and tobacco.

“It is long past time we in this country acknowledged that attitudes about marijuana have changed dramatically and it is time for us too in this land of steady habits to change with it,” Ganim announced in April, 2018.

Yet as the Democrat-majority General Assembly has this year moved forward bills to do just that, including a proposal to steer industry revenues to cash-strapped cities like Bridgeport, Ganim, also a Democrat, has been noticeably absent from that debate.

In contrast Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin and New Haven Mayor Toni Harp have publicly supported the pro-pot efforts, most recently at a May 15 rally at the Capitol in Hartford. Organizers said Ganim was invited but could not attend.

Ganim in a brief statement for this story said, “I have been generally supportive of this legalization, especially where it helps people of need in cities and is targeted to provide resources related to opioid assistance.”

He said a “schedule conflict” — final work on a municipal budget the City Council passed May 7 — kept him from the rally. But neither has Bridgeport’s mayor submitted testimony in favor of the pro-marijuana bills pending in the General Assembly.

Meanwhile Bronin wrote the General Assembly’s Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee April 28, “Connecticut’s goal should be legalization that repairs the damage done by decades of racially disproportionate drug enforcement. ... It is long past time for us to replace the failed and destructive ‘war on drugs’ with an equitable, thoughtful system of regulation.”

Ganim’s reduced enthusiasm seems reflective of the divisions over cannabis in a city where he is running for re-election.

“It’s a sensitive subject for some residents,” said Bridgeport City Council President Aidee Nieves, adding: “I’m still on the fence.”

One of Ganim’s opponents, state Sen. Marilyn Moore, D-Bridgeport, who in January launched her mayoral campaign and has previously supported legalizing pot, this week said “I’m not longer a hard ‘yes’. I’m a ‘maybe’ now.”

“I’ve been in a world with people up here (at the Capitol) that are all for it,” Moore said. “I want to hear a deeper story and a deeper conversation” about who benefits financially and how to prevent sales to minors.

Bridgeport has been wary of the decriminalization of cannabis. After Connecticut lawmakers legalized medical marijuana in 2012, city officials approved an application for a grower, and then-Mayor Bill Finch’s administration welcomed the new industry.

But opposition from some residents and developers sunk proposals for three dispensaries, and in 2014 Bridgeport’s Planning and Zoning Commission, with Finch’s backing, adopted a moratorium on accepting further applications.

The city was supposed to use the moratorium to develop a strategy for future pot proposals, but never did. Zoning Commissioner Reginald Walker in an April, 2018 interview said, “Most neighborhoods will probably all say ‘not in my backyard’.”

A test of faith

Meanwhile a trio of 2019 cannabis bills to set up the recreational industry, provide revenues to urban areas and address prior criminal records for drug offenses, recently advanced through the General Assembly with help from Bridgeport legislators.

“It’s a great opportunity to create small businesses,” said state Rep. Chris Rosario.

Rep. Steve Stafstrom, a Judiciary Committee co-chairman, said, “There’s several reasons it makes sense for Bridgeport,” from the criminal justice aspect to the economic benefits.

Legalization proponents recently admitted that, while they have Gov. Ned Lamont’s backing, they do not have the votes for final legislative passage, partly because of opposition from minority religious leaders.

Nieves said Bridgeport too has “a coalition of religious entities and spiritual leaders who believe it shouldn’t happen.”

One of Ganim’s biggest supporters, Councilwoman Rev. Mary McBride-Lee, told Hearst she is strongly against legalization, believing marijuana can lead users to pursue worse drugs. She is not swayed by the possible economic benefits to the city.

“They’re trading money for people’s lives,” McBride-Lee said. “Find another way to bring in revenue instead of selling drugs.”

State Rep. Charlie Stallworth, pastor of the East End Baptist Church, supported Ganim four years ago but is now running against him for mayor. Stallworth was announced as a guest at the pro-legalization May 15 rally with Bronin and Harp, but had a conflict.

“I’m a supporter,” Stallworth said, with the caveats that people who own pot businesses are from neighborhoods “disproportionately effected” by the war on drugs, and that there are tough rules against selling pot to minors.

Stallworth implied that Ganim’s strong support as a gubernatorial candidate for legal cannabis was solely politically-motivated: “Unless there’s something that’s going to benefit Joe Ganim, Joe Ganim is not trying to do something for the community.”

Rev. Carl McCluster of Shiloh Baptist Church in the city’s South End, is a vocal legalized pot opponent, arguing like McBride-Lee that marijuana is a “gateway drug” particularly for younger people.

“The bad far outweighs the good,” McCluster said. “Mayor Ganim is a competent politician. By not taking a position, he neither raises the ire of people who are for it or who are against it. It’s the safe, non-leadership position.”

Nieves said some of Bridgeport’s political leaders, herself included, have also been shy about strongly advocating for legalized marijuana because they do not want to give outsiders yet another reason to find fault with the city. Bridgeport for years has struggled with a reputation for crime and corruption.

“We’re the ‘big, bad seed of Fairfield County’,” Nieves said. “You have to be careful about that image.”

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