Connecticut lawmakers legalize recreational marijuana

·4 min read

Jun. 17—Come July 1, possession of marijuana will be legal in Connecticut, and retail sales will likely be underway by May 2022.

The state Senate voted 16 to 11 Thursday to approve the use of recreational cannabis and sent the bill to Gov. Ned Lamont for signature. Lamont said he would sign the bill.

A monthslong process to legalize marijuana, which some lawmakers noted has been decades in the making, at last reached a conclusion.

Locally, state Sens. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, and Norm Needleman, D-Essex, voted yes. State Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, voted no. State Sen. Paul Formica, R-East Lyme, who is on vacation, did not cast a vote. On Wednesday, all four senators had agreed that the extended nature of the special session would cause a number of legislators to miss Thursday's vote. A total of nine senators statewide were absent or did not vote.

The Senate was voting on the bill for a third time. The state House failed to call the bill in time during the regular session, causing a special session and requiring a second vote. When the Senate passed the bill a second time, an amendment drew a veto threat from Lamont. The first vote was 19-17 in favor, and the second vote was 19-12.

The governor's Chief of Staff Paul Mounds sent out a statement Tuesday evening opposing an amendment that would have included people with past cannabis convictions as social equity applicants, saying it "opens the floodgates for tens of thousands of previously ineligible applicants to enter the adult-use cannabis industry."

"That is not equity, and Governor Lamont will veto this bill if it reaches his desk in its current form," he said.

As a result, House Democrats scrapped that language and moved back to the deal initially struck with the governor and sent the bill back to the Senate.

"The war on cannabis, which was at its core a war on people in Black and Brown communities, not only caused injustices and increased disparities in our state, it did little to protect public health and safety. That's why I introduced a bill and worked hard with our partners in the legislature and other stakeholders to create a comprehensive framework for a securely regulated market that prioritizes public health, public safety, social justice, and equity," Lamont said in a statement. "I look forward to signing the bill and moving beyond this terrible period of incarceration and injustice."

The House did keep one Senate change, though, which would ban elected officials from participating in the cannabis industry for two years after leaving office.

On Thursday, Republican senators reiterated arguments against the bill, saying it hamstrung law enforcement and raised health concerns for adolescents, and that the motives for the bill were financial rather than moral. Multiple Republicans said Connecticut shouldn't legalize recreational cannabis just because surrounding states are doing so or have done it. Instead, they said, Connecticut should be an "oasis" in New England.

Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, took exception to a claim from Sen. Tony Hwang, R-Fairfield, that he hadn't heard enough from Democratic proponents of the bill.

"In 1971 when the war on drugs started, there was policy that was intended to negatively impact certain citizens," Winfield said. "The reason why I think this is important is because we have operated for 50 years with unjust laws that target certain communities. ... I think it's only fair, because my colleagues aren't speaking for themselves, to say people can come to different places hearing the same information and do it legitimately."

Throughout both the regular and special sessions, Republicans in both chambers dominated the debate, while Democratic leadership allowed extended discussion by the minority party. Other than short statements and answers to Republican questions on bills, Democrats remained quiet to expedite the process.

The state Senate also passed the budget implementer bill, approving a bipartisan state budget that also contains a host of unrelated provisions, by a vote of 20-6 with 10 absent or not voting.

Those include initiatives regarding labor, business, education, health care and other matters. Several aspects of the legislation carry implications for southeastern Connecticut. One of those measures would require schools with Native American mascots or team names to change them in order to qualify for state funding.

The Senate first passed the measure 23-7, but had to vote again on Thursday after the House made changes.

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