Wide-ranging marijuana bills offered in CT
HARTFORD — Bills in three different committees will be the core of the General Assembly’s wide-reaching legislation on the full legalization of marijuana for recreational use and retail sales, Democratic committee leaders announced Thursday afternoon.
The regulatory framework, at this point, does not include provisions for backyard cultivation of cannabis, a potentially divisive issue for lawmakers who will consider the raft of complicated legislation that if enacted could yield an estimated $170 million a year in taxes, once it gets off the ground.
The leaders said that the current producers of marijuana for the state’s medical cannabis program would have the extra capacity needed to provide retail marijuana in the first months of a new retail program, while an anticipated three tiers of new growers - small, medium and large operations - jump through the initial regulatory hoops.
The bills will originate in the Judiciary, General Law, and Finance committees and will include the erasure of criminal records for possession of small amounts of marijuana; a standard for driving while under the influence; and a tax rate for sales, with a chance for cannabis licenses to go to inner-city communities that have been impacted by the racially disproportionate law enforcement.
Rep. Steve Stafstrom, D-Bridgeport, co-chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said that a key component of the bill would allow those convicted of marijuana possession to show police reports or sworn affidavits to state judges, who could expunge criminal records for possession of amounts up to an ounce-and-a-half of cannabis.
Another bill would protect the rights of employers to prohibit the use of the drug by their workers. Legislation would allow those over 21 to possess up to an ounce-and-a-half of marijuana.
The legislation would also allow towns to prohibit or restrict marijuana sales, but Rep. Michael D’Agostino, D-Hamden, co-chairman of the General Law Committee, told reporters that he believes if towns and cities were given financial incentives to host growers, packagers and retail outlets, enough locations could be found to support retail sales.
“Legalizing a substance that has been illegal for more than 80 years is a complicated process,” said D’Agostino, whose committee will consider the regulatory structure of the program. “This is just the start of the process.” Under the draft legislation, cultivators could not sell marijuana to the public.
Rep. Jason Rojas, D-East Hartford, co-chairman of the Finance, Revenue & Bonding Committee, said he is planning for a tax program similar to Massachusetts, a destination in recent months for Connecticut residents to obtain legal cannabis. Rojas is planning on a 10.75 percent excise tax, a 6.25 sales tax, and a possible 3 percent local option.
“We want to be somewhat close to Massachusetts in terms of taxation and having an overall rate of about 20 percent,” Rojas told reporters during an afternoon news conference.
Fees and revenue would help fund the administration of the program, which he anticipates would be reviewed after two to three years to measure its success. Levels of THC, the active chemical in the drug, would also be limited under state law. D’Agostino said he hoped that the highest levels of THC, which creates the so-called high - the psychotropic effects - would be reserved for the current 30,000 medical-program patients.
While it remains to be seen whether enough support can be mustered for the marijuana bills in the Democratic-controlled House and Senate, the comprehensive legislation would be administered in a new agency, the Cannabis Control Commission, within the state Department of Consumer Protection, similar to the state Liquor Control Commission. Consumer Protection has run the state’s successful medical-cannabis program since 2012.
Rep. Juan Candelaria, D-New Haven, who for years has unsuccessfully attempted to legalize marijuana for adult use, said that the state’s current, estimated $350-million-a-year underground marijuana market is fed by gangsters and international cartels that could be made impotent by a legalized cannabis market.
Candelaria said he excited about the prospect for equity to people who have been arrested for possession, to become eligible for getting involved in the market. “I want to be sure that the dollars generated in this particular bill are reinvested in the communities,” he said. “We want to ensure that children don’t have access to it. Children have access to marijuana in our schools today.”
“We’re going to be listening to those who have been most affected by the drug laws over the past 80 or years because a large part of this bill is making sure that there is equity moving forward,” said Rep. Josh Elliott, D-Hamden, a marijuana proponent who serves on the Finance Committee. “There is the financial component but there is also the recognizing of who has been affected by the war on drugs component as well.”
“Equity must be at the forefront of the conversation around the legalization of cannabis,” said Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, the co-chairman of the Judiciary Committee who has also favored full legalization for years.
“Part of our job is to ensure that those who have been most impacted by the war on drugs are not left behind in this conversation, and instead are at the center of it,” he said in a statement Thursday. “Prioritizing equity applicants and sending a significant portion of the revenue raised from cannabis legalization back into the urban communities that bore the brunt of the unjust war on drugs are all important.”
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