State drug policy was on the table at the first Connecticut statewide gubernatorial debate, held Tuesday night in Sheffield-Sterling-Strathcona Hall.

The debate, which was co-hosted by the Connecticut chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws and Yale Students for Sensible Drug Policy focused on cannabis rights as well as social justice and criminal justice reform. Although more than 20 candidates have declared they are running or are exploring the possibility of running for governor, only four participated in the event: Democrats Dan Drew and Jonathan Harris, state Rep. Prasad Srinivasan, R-Glastonbury, and unaffiliated candidate Micah Welintukonis. Connecticut NORML legal advisor Aaron Romano moderated the debate, which featured discussion of the opioid epidemic and the effects of continual discrimination against people of color in the criminal justice system.

“Marijuana is the the last form of prohibition,” Drew said.

Drew, who serves as mayor of Middletown and supports legalizing marijuana and taxing it in the same way the state taxes alcohol, argued that legalization would increase Connecticut’s revenue by up to $200 million a year and lift the pressure to make arrests off the police and court systems.

Drew added that drug addiction should be treated as a medical issue rather than a criminal one.

Srinivasan, a private medical practitioner in Glastonbury, was the only candidate to argue against the legalization of marijuana. He said the state should research potential public safety and health consequences before legalizing cannabis.

In addition, he contested the notion that the revenues from legalizing cannabis would free up funds to reduce the state debt, noting that the revenues would amount to just $61 million — a small proportion of the state’s $20 billion budget.

Harris, the former Connecticut commissioner of consumer protection, said he believes now is the time for legalizing marijuana. Still, he agreed with Srinivasan that legalization is not a “panacea” for the state’s fiscal crisis.

“We must do it right and take into account all social costs,” Harris said. “If we are not deliberate, it could lead to raising costs and doing damage.”

In a discussion on marijuana’s potential utility in tackling the opioid crisis, unaffiliated candidate Welintukonis spoke frankly about the ways prescription medication has affected his family. His connection with his father was severed for years, he said, because of his father’s addiction to prescription pills.

Citing libertarian ideals, Welintukonis declared, “I’m for pot.”

The candidates also discussed the effects of drug policy on racial prejudice in the criminal justice system. All four agreed that current policies disproportionately affect people of color.

According to Romano, although white people use marijuana more often than black people in the state of Connecticut, blacks are four times more likely to be prosecuted.

Several other gubernatorial candidates attended the event but did not appear on stage. Eric Mastroianni Sr., a veteran who works at Colony Hardware Supply Inc., emphasized that all candidates should be able to share their opinions on this topic publicly because of the variety of opinions on the matter.

Businesswoman Jacey Wyatt said she considers marijuana legalization a “done deal” and wants to focus on state economy and jobs.

One member of the board of NORML, Cody Roberts, told the News he went through rehab for prescription drugs and said cannabis saved his life by getting him off harder drugs.

“There was a lot of education being done tonight,” he said.

Governor Dannel Malloy signed a medical marijuana program for Connecticut into law in 2012.

Ashna Gupta | ashna.gupta@yale.edu

Skakel McCooey | skakel.mccooey@yale.edu