Racial equity, safety at center of Connecticut marijuana debate

Photo: Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Activists and advocates are demanding racial equity as Connecticut considers legalizing recreational marijuana, while legislators are focused on safety.

Connecticut legislators held their first of at least two public hearings in 2018 on the legalization of marijuana as residents and advocates testified before the Connecticut General Law Committee on Thursday.

Prior to Thursday’s hearing, legislators who support H.B. 5458 held a press conference where they discussed the time-sensitive nature of the state’s current marijuana debate.

“Massachusetts is going to have their legal sales start in June,” state Democratic Rep. Joshua Elliot said. “And what that means is that people can take a 20-minute drive across the border, buy their recreational cannabis, and come back to the state — no repercussions because it’s been decriminalized here — and all that’s happening is that marijuana has become de facto legalized in Connecticut but now we’re losing out on the revenue.”

Elliot’s concerns were echoed by Democratic Rep. Michael D’Agostino, the vice chair of the General Law Committee.

“People are going to be flocking to Massachusetts to buy soon,” D’Agostino added.

When Massachusetts’ first legal pot shops open this summer, many Connecticut residents will have access to a legal recreational market. This means soon, Connecticut will be dealing with many potential problems of legal recreational marijuana, but only Massachusetts will get the benefits of additional jobs and tax revenue. With Connecticut already facing a massive budget deficit, even staunch recreational marijuana opponents like Gov. Dan Malloy are opening up to legalization.

However, Elliot does not view the issue as primarily an economic one.

“This is an issue of social justice,” he said, noting that people and communities of color have been disproportionately affected by marijuana prohibition.

But some activists who spoke at Thursday’s hearing do not believe the bill Elliot supports does enough for social justice.

Kebra Smith-Bolden, a registered nurse and CEO of CannaHealth Connecticut, called on legislators to ensure the state’s potential regulatory marijuana commission is diverse and that the marijuana market is accessible for business owners of all races.

“As a restorative justice measure it is critical that whatever adult use program is enacted in Connecticut be a fair and equitable one,” she said.

H.B. 5458 does not meet that standard due to its massive, non-refundable fee to apply for a cultivation license, she added.

The current text of H.B. 5458 states that the application fee for cultivation licenses shall not cost less $25,000 and also requires the applicant to have at least $2 million in a business escrow account.

Similar concerns were raised by Becky Dansky, legislative counsel to the Marijuana Policy Project, a national nonprofit that has played a key role in legalization in states including Colorado and Massachusetts.

Dansky called the bill’s proposed application fee and escrow requirement “prohibitive” and said they would be “far higher” than the cost of cultivation licenses in any state that has legalized recreational pot so far.

“That’s the type of number you see with a medical program, so that’s something you might want to consider lowering for the purposes of a retail program,” Dansky said. “Your standards are going to be higher for a medical program. We’re talking about people’s medication. You want the bar to be higher. You want to be sure this isn’t somebody whose business is going to go and you know fold within a year.”

Other states have adopted a more relaxed approach to recreational markets.

“In the retail market there’s more room to allow the market to adjust and for the better businesses to rise,” Dansky said.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut also raised concerns about the potential for people of color to be shut out of the industry in their written testimony submitted earlier this week. The ACLU-CT is calling for provisions to be added to the bill to “prevent racial disparities from replicating themselves in a legal marijuana industry.”

Democratic state Sen. Carlo Leone said during the hearing that he was unsure about lowering the fees so that more people could participate in the markets. He and other committee members were focused on issues of safety as they consider strategies for regulating recreational pot in Connecticut.

Democratic Rep. Daniel Rovero  said he was worried about being able to detect and prevent impaired driving under the influence of marijuana, while Democratic Rep. Bobby Gibson, Jr. was especially concerned about edibles and the possibility of child access to them. These legislators, among others, directed a series of questions about safety to Dansky and Sam Tracy, the Marijuana Policy Project’s political director for Connecticut.

Regarding impaired drivers, Dansky cautioned against implementing breathalyzer-style tests, because systems that purport to detect THC-impairment can register marijuana-use up to 30 days ago. Dansky instead recommended the use of standard field sobriety tests.

On the topic of edibles, Dansky said strict packaging laws can help limit child access and strict marketing laws can reduce their appeal but the responsibility ultimately falls to parents to keep marijuana out of the hands of their kids — the same way parents are responsible for keeping their kids out of the liquor cabinet or away from their prescription drugs.

However, kids are less at risk if they do get into a parent’s pot supply than they are if they get into other legal drugs or even common household cleaning supplies.

“If a child somehow gets into a marijuana edible, the good news is they’ll be okay,” Dansky said. “When a child eats a Tide Pod, there’s a chance they might die.”

“Sometimes we hear from our opponents that the first year in Colorado they saw a double in emergency room visits for children under five,” she added. “First of all, yes, that’s true.They went from eight to 16, which was fewer than emergency room visits for children eating detergent. And second of all is, what we know is those children [who consumed marijuana] were okay afterwards, and that isn’t the case for a lot of other dangerous substances.”

The Marijuana Policy Project members also told legislators that legalization can actually help make communities safer.

“Right now on the black market, drug dealers don’t card,” Tracy said. “They don’t care if you’re 19 or if you’re 21.”

By opening legal markets, black market businesses become less viable, and limit the young people — especially high school students —  who have access to marijuana.

Legalization could also help curb the state’s opioid epidemic by providing residents with a safer alternative to dangerously addictive legal painkillers and black market opiates. Although Connecticut already has a medical marijuana program, the standards to qualify are stricter than in many other states. Connecticut is one of just three states where “pain” is not a medical qualifier, leaving out potentially thousands of patients who have pain-related diseases.

“It is not a coincidence that there are only three states with medical marijuana programs that have seen an increase in opioid overdose deaths as opposed to a decrease,” Dansky said.

Dansky and Tracy also assured legislators that data from other states that legalized recreational adult-use marijuana show there has not been any significant increase in marijuana use. That means any safety concerns legislators have about recreational cannabis are already present in the state right now under prohibition.

A second public hearing on legalization will be held on Monday by the Connecticut Judiciary Committee. It is expected to focus on S.B. 487, which describes the state’s plan for the taxation of recreational marijuana.