Connecticut lawmakers have introduced several bills to legalize recreational marijuana in Connecticut, where medical cannabis has been legally sold since 2014.
The newly sworn-in governor Ned Lamont, a Democrat, has publicly voiced his support for recreational marijuana in Connecticut. If a recreational bill makes it to his desk, he is expected to sign it.
But there are significant obstacles. Many Connecticut residents oppose legalization.
The Debate about Recreational Marijuana in Connecticut
As with most issues, both sides selectively use data that support their talking points.
Most of the opposition's talking points involve the potential for people driving under the influence of marijuana. They warn that there's still no reliable breathalyzer for cannabis, as there is for alcohol.
Others still espouse the "gateway drug" theory, that marijuana use leads to harder, more addictive drugs. In a state struck by the opioid epidemic, they say, the resources to regulate recreational cannabis are not available. They claim that states with recreational cannabis have high rates of teen use. (Recent studies refute this claim.)
But proponents are hopeful that recreational cannabis will be legalized in 2019. Democrats now hold a majority in both the state House and Senate, and governor Ned Lamont has been vocal about his support for recreational marijuana in Connecticut.
Disagreements about Tax Revenue
Proponents point to the potential tax windfall that legalization could create. Massachusetts, Connecticut's neighbor to the north, recently became the first state in New England to open recreational dispensaries. Millions flocked from across the region, leading to traffic, parking problems, and over $2 million in sales in the first few days.
Connecticut could use some cash. The state is currently facing a financial crisis. Its deficit is in the billions, but it already has some of the highest tax rates in the country, so people are reluctant to raise taxes. But the state also is seeing a net loss of residents, which is further cutting into its tax revenue.
Advocates say recreational sales could generate up to $180 million in much-needed tax revenue each year, according to the Hartford Courant.
Groups who oppose legalization, of course, say the revenue projections are inflated. The legislature's nonpartisan fiscal office, meanwhile, estimates annual tax revenue of at least $30 million – if Connecticut adopts a tax structure similar to Massachusetts'.
New Recreational Legalization Bill Introduced
In January, Connecticut Democrats introduced a bill to legalize recreational cannabis.
Over 40 House Democrats have signed on to the bill. It would legalize sales of recreational marijuana in Connecticut to all adults over the age of 21. It doesn't specify a tax structure – just that the marijuana will be taxed. A portion of the marijuana tax revenue would fund drug awareness education, drug-prevention officers in schools, and treatment programs for people with substance addiction problems.
The bill's sponsors hope to override concerns about cannabis users driving under the influence. They included a clause defining a DUI as a certain blood-THC-level, although it's unclear exactly how officers would conduct roadside tests for THC.
In the bill, Connecticut also borrows a page from its neighbor to the north. When Massachusetts legalized recreational marijuana, they included a "social equity" clause. They are expediting and giving priority to business applications from candidates who meet certain criteria, like being from a low-income neighborhood, or having served time for a marijuana crime – indicators that they belong to the communities hit worst by the war on drugs.
More states and cities are recognizing that cannabis legalization should involve some sort of reparative justice. (The new legal industry is almost exclusively white, although people of color were disproportionately hurt by marijuana prohibition.) Oakland, California, for example, has enacted policies to encourage minority participation in the new industry.
Connecticut's bill stipulates that one quarter of the licenses awarded for recreational cannabis businesses would be located in "enterprise zones," or lower-income neighborhoods. Proponents hope this will help encourage diversity in the state's recreational marijuana industry.
The new bill would also allow people to grow cannabis plants – unlike the state's current medical marijuana law
According to the proposed bill, adult residents would be allowed to grow up to six marijuana plants. This would mark a huge shift for Connecticut marijuana policy.
Today, growing marijuana is illegal in Connecticut – for almost everyone…even if you're a registered medical marijuana cardholder. Adults can possess up to an ounce without facing legal risks, because marijuana is decriminalized in the state, but you cannot grow your own – even if you're a registered caregiver for a registered medical marijuana cardholder.
Caregivers can't legally grow medical marijuana in Connecticut. (Registered caregivers in the state's medical marijuana program can only purchase and possess medical marijuana on behalf of the consumer. This is different than most states with medical marijuana laws, where the patient's caregiver can grow their allotted marijuana plants for them.)
Connecticut's medical marijuana laws also say that each caregiver can only be the designated caregiver for one medical marijuana consumer. Lawmakers crafted these restrictions to ensure Connecticut's medical marijuana laws wouldn't become like Colorado's, where, in 2009, "caregiver" statutes famously allowed growers to combine the plant counts of thousands of consumers.
Despite Connecticut's more restrictive laws, the medical marijuana industry has been growing fast. The state's medical marijuana law passed in 2012, and the first medical marijuana dispensaries opened in 2014. Twenty-two medical conditions are approved as qualifying for medical marijuana. At first, only nine dispensaries were licensed to serve the entire state. Recently, due to high demand, state officials awarded a few more dispensary licenses. Maybe this is a sign that they’re preparing for recreational marijuana in Connecticut.
Limited Grow Facility Licenses
Although Connecticut recently awarded additional dispensary licenses, there are still only four licensed businesses growing marijuana in Connecticut.
This also means the dispensaries must source all their product on their shelves from among only four businesses, which has led to some challenges for the state's pioneering dispensaries.
In an oligopoly (like when, say, an entire state's wholesale marijuana supply is controlled by only four businesses), the suppliers don't engage in price fixing outright. (Price fixing is illegal.) They don't need to. With such limited competition, they don't have to worry about some newcomer undercutting their prices. They can charge what they want.
This gives them the upper hand when negotiating prices with the dispensaries.
The dispensaries would prefer for their wholesale supply chain to look more like the rest of the capitalist economy. They would probably like the four growers to have some more competition, which would lower prices.
The dispensaries have petitioned the state to award more grow licenses.
The state has, so far, declined.
And the four current grows are fighting to keep it that way.
They have hired their own lobbyist, who is arguing on their behalf at the state capitol.
"The four licensed producers have spent tens of millions of dollars to expand their facilities to meet the increasing demand for the product," the four cultivation companies' lobbyist told the Marijuana Business Daily.
They do not want any new growers to be able to enter their market.
So if you're interested in recreational marijuana in Connecticut, keep your fingers crossed that the recreational cannabis bill will make it to Governor Ned Lamont's desk this year.