Connecticut State lawmakers will debate legalizing recreational marijuana this legislative session, jumping on a wave of similar efforts in states across New England.
Two bills, sponsored by Democratic House deputy majority leader Juan Candelaria of New Haven and representative Edwin Vargas of Hartford, seek to decriminalize and regulate the sale, possession, use and growth of marijuana across the state.
Connecticut’s state legislature decriminalized the drug in 2011 and then approved a medical marijuana program just one year later, though the drug was not available to consumers until September 2014.
Vargas said he believes the state’s current policy on recreational marijuana use is hypocritical, noting that, with the current language, youth in urban areas are unfairly persecuted for possessing small amounts of marijuana. He added that, in light of the state’s looming budget deficit, taxing the drug would boost state revenue as well.
“My constituents are tired of seeing young peoples’ lives destroyed by this war on drugs,” Vargas said. “I think every other family in the city of Hartford has either a relative, a close friend or neighbor who’s been stigmatized by this drug issue. It’s touched almost every family in my district.”
The government should treat marijuana as they do alcohol and tobacco, Vargas said, noting that marijuana usage should be viewed as a public health issue as opposed a criminal one. Candelaria could not be reached for comment over the weekend.
The state’s existing program for medical marijuana use bodes well for these new bills, according to Marijuana Policy Project legislative analyst Chris Lindsey. Connecticut’s medical marijuana program is one of the country’s most highly regulated, Lindsey said, adding that it has set up a blueprint lawmakers can use to push recreational marijuana legalization. He noted that many features of the two programs would remain the same, with cultivators, testing and retail establishments already in place.
But other state lawmakers are not as enthusiastic.
Republican House representative Vincent Candelora, who voted against medical marijuana legalization in the state, said that he opposes the new legislation due to its negative health implications. Candelora cited examples from Colorado, which legalized marijuana for recreational use in 2012, noting incidents where children had accidentally ingested the product, as well as an increase in the number of DUIs in the state.
Candelora is also concerned with the claim that taxing the product will aid state revenues and, in turn, help close the budget deficit.
The two bills arrive on the legislative table in a year fraught with state budget issues, which is projected to run a deficit of $182.3 million for the 2015 fiscal year, according to the legislature’s nonpartisan Office of Fiscal Analysis.
Vargas said that, looking at revenue figures in Colorado — the first state to legalize recreational marijuana — and the dense population of the Northeast, Connecticut could also generate a hefty amount of revenue as the first state in the Northeast to legalize recreational marijuana.
If the bills were to pass, their impact on the state budget would be two-fold, according to Lindsey: Not only would the government be able to tax marijuana in forms like retail sales taxes or wholesale taxes, but the state would also save money, as it would no longer need to enforce laws that impose penalties on the drug’s users.
But Gov. Dannel Malloy, who holds veto power on state law proposals, has expressed opposition to the drug’s legalization for recreational purposes. While the governor recently honed in on criminal justice reform issues to eliminate mandatory minimums for non-violent drug possession, he believes a program for recreational marijuana use is unlikely to be approved, according to spokesman Mark Bergman.
Candelora believes Malloy’s stance on the issue will lead state legislators to not approve legalization. He added that, within the legislature, there was a lack of interest in furthering the issue. Candelora also expressed concern that there is an insufficient amount of time and research being placed on recreational marijuana use.
With the possibility of joining states like Alaska, Colorado, Washington and Oregon — all of which have already legalized recreational usage — Connecticut is one of many states in the Northeast courting the issue. Lawmakers in Vermont have also proposed similar legislation, while Rhode Island and New Hampshire both considered, but ultimately did not pass, legalization in 2014.
President of the University of Connecticut’s Students for Sensible Drug Policy Tyler Williams, a senior, said that students in the state would benefit from legalization in more than one aspect, noting that University of Connecticut police could redirect their focus from pursuing marijuana charges to addressing crime such as sexual violence on campus. Williams also suggested that the new industry would be an economic boon to students.
“When Colorado regulated marijuana, there was a huge boost in economic growth. I know there are many students who are looking to leave Connecticut because the jobs they want aren’t here,” Williams said in an email to the News. “By developing this new industry, students in the next few years would see a lot more economic opportunity in the state.”
Vargas said that he is currently working towards having a public hearing on the issue this year.