Marijuana advocates hope for growing support
Now that Connecticut will have a governor who supports the full legalization of marijuana, advocates hope that decades of lobbying will finally blossom.
But just because Governor-elect Ned Lamont wants to expand beyond the state’s nationally recognized medical-cannabis program doesn’t mean it will be easy to get the General Assembly onboard after his Jan. 9 inauguration.
The Department of Consumer Protection’s regulatory framework, which makes state-grown cannabis available to more than 30,000 medical patients, could ease the growing pains of full legalization. But while Lamont will have more robust Democratic majorities in the state House and Senate, there remains solid skepticism, and opposition, among lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.
For Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport, the current co-chairman of the legislative Public Health Committee, the issue remains thorny, as he weighs the potential physical and social costs of recreational marijuana against the estimated $180 million in new taxes that could be raised annually.
“The lure of revenue is almost irresistible,” said Steinberg, whose committee last year held a public hearing on full legalization, which died. “We had a lot of testimony, some of it conflicting. There are data out there that should give people pause.”
In particular, the effects of marijuana on the development of adolescent brains is troublesome, Steinberg said.
“There is also conflicting information on the addictiveness of the drug,” he said.
But advocates led by the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws say the model law prohibits those under 21 from legally obtaining cannabis. They point to the decades of false claims against the drug, which they say is less dangerous than alcohol abuse.
Erik Altieri, executive director of NORML, said in an interview from the group’s Washington headquarters that most of the 10 states that have fully legalized marijuana have included regulations for sales. Vermont, Maine and the District of Columbia are outliers, because it’s legal to possess and grow there, but there are currently no rules for sales. Whether a grow-your-own provision is written in Connecticut law remains to be seen.
Nationally recognized medical-marijuana program
Massachusetts, one of the most recent states to approve cannabis for personal use, is way ahead in the regional race for retail sales, following a successful 2016 referendum.
Matt Simon, New England director for the Marijuana Policy Project, said the key to Connecticut’s cannabis future is to build consensus around one type of regulatory framework or another. In some states, the revenue departments or liquor control commissions run retail marijuana sales.
In Connecticut, the role would most likely go to the state Department of Consumer Protection, which has overseen the medical-marijuana program since its inception in 2012. There are 30,149 patients enrolled in the program, along with 1,008 physicians. There are four state-approved marijuana growers and nine dispensaries.
“Our recommendations will probably not deal with a lot of specifics,” Simon said. “We’ll make suggestions and try to share experiences from other states on what worked and hasn’t worked. They’re all better than the failed prohibitions that they replaced.”
Consumer Protection Commissioner Michelle Seagull said the medical-cannabis program is working very well, but during public hearings last year on possible retail sales, she said a massive expansion of the program would require more staff.
More growers needed
Also, Seagull warned lawmakers that some medical marijuana patients could end up treating themselves without the advice of the pharmacists who are required under state law to run each of the dispensaries. She stressed the need to preserve the medical-cannabis program. Nationally, 32 states have approved medical-cannabis programs.
Paul Kirchberg of Milford, executive director of the Connecticut chapter of NORML, said he expects that the established medical growers would have an advantage, but full legalization would require a huge increase in producers. He wants to make sure medical marijuana patients retain their priority status.
“I’m concerned that there be preparations to prevent disadvantages to the medical program,” said Kirchberg. “There is an underlying feeling within the medical community over the lack of offerings and the consistency in product availability.”
Kirchberg said many social concerns are based on a “false stigma” against the drug going back 70 years or more.
“We know it’s safer than alcohol,” he said “If we can honestly have an open conversation about cannabis, we can realize that right now there are 30,000 people in Connecticut who are living proof that it’s not something to fear. Adult consumption, however, requires a certain level of responsibility.”
The Gallup Poll recently found that 64 percent of the nation supports legalization. Kirchberg cites a survey in which 71 percent of Connecticut voters support the measure.
Using that support as a baseline, with each adult spending about $600 a year on cannabis, and the state’s current sales tax of 6.35 percent, advocates reach the estimate of $180 million a year in new state tax revenue, not including related businesses, such as banking, tech support, transportation and advertising.
Most Republicans, led by state Rep. Vincent Candelora, of North Branford, opposed the 2017 edition of the retail-sales bill.
Revenue will be a big argument for full legalization, but a libertarian voice on the social aspects of the issue, Republican state Rep. Melissa Ziobron, of East Haddam, may not be in the General Assembly next year. She is currently involved in a recount in the 33rd state Senate District race in the towns around the mouth of the Connecticut River.
Steinberg, who was re-elected and likely will be debating and voting on the measure this coming legislative session, says the purity of state-sanctioned producers should not be discounted. He’s not particularly interested in allowing people to grow marijuana in their gardens, for quality-control reasons.
Kirchberg supports a home-grown provision, stressing it would neither affect the quality or revenue concerns.
“I can grow tomatoes at home,” Kirchberg said. “But that doesn’t mean I won’t buy them at the store.”