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Lamont making big push for marijuana legalization this year

February 24, 2021 GMT

Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont is making a major push to legalize the adult use of recreational marijuana after COVID-19 upended the 2020 legislative session, arguing now is the time to finally enact a regulated system that generates new state and local revenue while addressing racial equity issues.

The Democrat said Wednesday that his 163-page bill, which builds on legislation he offered last year and currently awaits a public hearing, also takes into account lessons learned by other states that have already legalized the drug.

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“Colorado has been doing this for a decade. Even South Dakota just approved it. New Jersey has just signed it yesterday. New York and Massachusetts. So we’re not an island unto ourself,” Lamont said during a Zoom roundtable discussion about the bill. “We’re going to learn from their lessons and do this in a thoughtful way.”

Legalizing the adult use of recreational marijuana has been debated for years at the state Capitol. Rep. Michael D’Agostino, D-Hamden, co-chairman of the General Assembly’s General Law Committee, said he believes this could be the year that Connecticut finally passes legalization legislation.

“I think that the difference this year, obviously, is having the force of the governor’s office behind it. That’s something we’ve never had before,” he said, adding how there’s also recognition among legislators that other states are passing legalization bills and Connecticut could be left behind.

“Everybody is starting to realize we have to do something,” D’Agostino said.

Besides Lamont’s bill, there are other marijuana legalization bills proposed this session by various lawmakers.

Under Lamont’s plan, sales would begin in May 2022, with cities and towns deciding where recreational cannabis can be used and sold within their borders. The governor has estimated $33.6 million in revenue could be generated in the first year, growing to about $97 million by fiscal year 2026. Those figures do not include a 3% local tax.

Besides regulating the drug and generating revenue, the bill also focuses on decriminalizing marijuana, building upon an earlier law that that made it an infraction to possess less than a half ounce of the drug. Lamont’s bill makes it legal to possess up to 1.5 ounces for adult use, or more if it’s a patient using medical marijuana. Penalties would also be reduced for possession of larger amounts.

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Additionally, the bill expunges past marijuana-related criminal convictions, either automatically or by petition, depending on when the case occurred.

Arunan Arulampalam, deputy commissioner of the state Department of Consumer Protection, said the governor’s marijuana bill is the only one this year that broadly addresses the complicated issue of social equity and race. Besides the expungement of records, he said an advisory group of community leaders and members came up with recommendations for Lamont on not just who should get state licenses, but how communities adversely affected by the nation’s war on drugs should benefit.

Lamont’s bill creates a new equity commission that Arulampalam said will come up with a plan for a sustainable marijuana industry in Connecticut that over time benefits both minority owners of new, marijuana-related businesses but also communities with large numbers of minority residents.

However, that approach has received some criticism from some minority state lawmakers, who’ve voiced concern that it could take too much time and ultimately give the existing medical marijuana growers in the state an advantage over new businesses trying to enter the market.

Arulampalam said he understands such concerns, but said the administration wants a plan that will have a lasting, positive impact.

“It took a long time to destroy communities of color in the state and in this country. It took a long time for the effects of cannabis to continue to disadvantage generations of Black and brown people in the state. And it takes a long time to unwind,” he said. “And I think that looking for a day one solution ignores the reality that we need a solution that is going to continue to impact communities of color across the state.”