Connecticut residents to testify on marijuana legalization

Photo: Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

Connecticut residents will testify for a historic bill to legalize recreational pot — and some are calling on legislators to ensure racial diversity in the marijuana market.

The Connecticut General Assembly is moving closer to the legalization of recreational marijuana and has invited members of the public to testify on the subject before the General Law Committee this Thursday.

The testimony, originally scheduled for today but delayed due to a snow storm, will focus on H.B. No. 5458, one of at least three marijuana-related bills introduced by members of the Connecticut General Assembly this year.

Last year, the Connecticut House of Representatives considered a legalization bill in the form of a two-page draft that could have served as a framework for a proper piece of legislation. Although members of the public were invited to testify then as well, the 2017 bill was never completed and no vote ever took place.

The bill currently before the General Law Committee is far more detailed than the proposal considered last year, making H.B. 5458 the most comprehensive and therefore serious plan to legalize marijuana to ever be considered by the Connecticut General Assembly.

The bill would legalize marijuana for purchase for anyone who is 21 or older and creates a system of cultivation facilities, retailers, and so-called “marijuana lounges” where cannabis could be both bought and consumed on-site.

If passed, the state would form a Marijuana Control Commission responsible for issuing a limited number of licenses to facilities, shops, and lounges. The number of licenses issued would be determined by the commission after its formation.

The application process for licenses would also be up to the commission, including the cost of application fees. However, the state will require the commission set a non-refundable fee of at least $25,000 for applications to become a cultivation facility.

The provision mirrors the high-cost process the state implemented when it created its medical marijuana program in 2012. Critics argue the non-refundable fees left most residents shut out of the industry before it even began.

“The state is providing a select few with the opportunity to make millions,” Aaron Romano, legal adviser to the Connecticut chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, told 50 States of Blue in December.

There are currently no black or Hispanic owners in Connecticut’s existing cannabis industry, Romano said.

The same point was raised by the Hartford City Council in December when it voted unanimously on a resolution to urge legislators to legalize recreational pot in 2018. The resolution calls for “racial equity”  if the state does form a legal recreational market.

“By passing this resolution, we put ourselves in a position to ensure the implementation of marijuana regulation is grounded in racial and economic justice,” Hartford City Councilwoman Wildaliz Bermudez said at the December meeting.

However, the current version of H.B. 5458 makes no mention of any efforts to ensure equity in the potential new market but that could still change as legislators consider public opinion.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut (ACLU-CT) has already addressed their concerns regarding racial equity in the industry in written testimony released today. The ACLU-CT notes that laws criminalizing the use and sale of cannabis have disproportionately affected minorities and that while legalization is a step in the right direction, the state must do more ensure the new system is fair.

“[W]e strongly encourage this committee to add provisions to this bill to establish an office to ensure that marijuana industry revenue is invested in communities that have been most harmed by drug prohibition, and to ensure that these communities have access to business licenses, in order to prevent racial disparities from replicating themselves in a legal marijuana industry,” wrote Kathy Lentini, a legislative counsel for the ACLU-CT.

She also called on the legislature to create a pathway to expunge the records of citizens with marijuana-related convictions.

Residents who wish to make their ideas heard as the state weighs legalization can attend the public hearing at Room 310 of the Connecticut State Capitol Building on Thursday at 10:00 a.m. or email their own written testimony to GLtestimony@cga.ct.gov.

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