At the turn of the new year, state lawmakers are pushing toward the legalization of recreational marijuana, hoping to tax its sales to decrease deficits in the state’s budget. Still, some public health professionals remain unconvinced that the potential revenue outweighs numerous health concerns associated with recreational marijuana use.
In the January session of the State Senate General Assembly, Senate President Pro Tempore Martin Looney, D-New Haven, introduced a bill to legalize the retail sale and taxation of marijuana, provided that generated revenue goes into the state’s general fund.
In an interview with the News, Looney said there is growing interest around the nation in the legalization of marijuana. Connecticut could benefit fiscally from following the example of states such as Colorado and Massachusetts, which legalized marijuana in recent years, he said.
“I think it’s responsible as a way to take relatively minor cases out of the criminal justice system and frankly, a significant source of state revenue during a time of budget deficit,” Looney said.
According to Looney, legalizing marijuana could potentially generate an estimated $50 to $60 million worth of revenue for Connecticut. He added that the bill would also allow local police departments to reallocate resources and cut down on time spent on drug investigations.
However, some public health experts have expressed concern about the potential legalization of marijuana.
Vasilis Vasiliou, a Yale professor at the School of Public Health, does not deny the immense financial benefits that marijuana sales could have on the state’s current budget shortfall. According to Vasiliou, the revenue generated by marijuana sales in Colorado exceeds that of alcohol consumption.
“The tax revenue that will be generated is a good reason for the state to legalize marijuana,” Vasiliou said. “My problem is not where the money will go or how much money will be generated but rather the [public health] concerns of legalizing marijuana.”
Vasiliou said he is concerned that legalizing marijuana could have a series of adverse impacts, including apathy among users, especially young adults in high school. Even though the sale of recreational marijuana sales has a 21-year-old age minimum, Vasiliou believes that legalization would “realistically lead to easier access for all age groups.”
A Jan. 12 report issued by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine — a compilation of more than 10,000 scientific abstracts from the past 17 years — also raised concerns about the health risks associated with cannabis and the drugs derived from it.
According to the report, in a nationwide survey, 22.2 million Americans ages 12 and older reported using cannabis in the past month. Although the drug can have therapeutic effects in the treatment of chronic pain, smoking cannabis can increase the risk of involvement in a motor vehicle accident, negatively impacts respiratory health and is likely to increase the risk of developing schizophrenia, psychoses and social anxiety disorders, among other concerns. However, the report also noted that smoking cannabis does not increase the risk of cancers associated with tobacco use.
In combating the threats of marijuana use, Vasiliou said the Yale community — including health professionals, students and administrators — has to work together and form a joint task force. He added that more research is also necessary to further the medical understanding of marijuana, particularly its potential benefits.
Although Looney acknowledges that the bill could take years before being enacted, he has waited several years in the past for his bills to take hold. In 2009, he joined forces with then-state Sen. Toni Harp, New Haven’s current mayor, to propose a bill decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana. That bill passed eventually under Gov. Dannel Malloy in 2011.
In both Colorado and Massachusetts, the legalization of marijuana passed through ballot measures. Since Connecticut does not use ballot measures or referendums, the issue would have to go through the normal legislative process.
Looney said he spoke to some Massachusetts state legislators who told him that without the ballot measure, the state’s legalization of marijuana would likely not have occurred. But he remains hopeful that the law will eventually pass in Connecticut.
“The public may be quite a bit ahead of their elected officials,” he said.
When submitted, Looney’s proposed bill was referred to the Joint Committee on Judiciary.