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Residents across Connecticut are one step closer to being able to legally light up a doobie.

For the first time in state history, a bill that would begin planning for the legalization of recreational marijuana cleared a Connecticut General Assembly committee. House Bill 5394, which the Appropriations Committee narrowly approved by a vote of 27–24, calls on a number of state agencies to devise a plan to legalize and regulate marijuana while strengthening substance abuse treatment and prevention by Oct. 1. Two other bills, which would have directly legalized marijuana, have either been rejected or tabled by committees in the 2018 legislative session.

Bill 5394’s tentative nature won over some skeptics, and the proposed legislation will now proceed to the General Assembly for plenary debates. Should the bill become law, the drafted plans for legalization would still require final approval by the Assembly.

“I have some concerns about this moving forward, but this bill deserves an opportunity for further conversation and to get to the fine points,” said state Sen. Paul Formica, R-East Lyme, co-chair of the Appropriations Committee, before voting to approve the bill. “This bill provides the opportunity for a group of folks to create a plan that can be discussed in depth.”

state Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven, another co-chair of the committee, told the News that the legislation aims to promote extensive discussion between stakeholders and allows the working groups formed by state agencies to hash out a refined product. Bills that contain too many details from the outset are likely to run into stiffer opposition, she said, especially if there have not been adequate discussion and input from community groups.

Walker also emphasized that the final plan will legalize pot only for people who are at least 21 years old and will impose restrictions on marijuana cultivation. She hopes to incorporate the merits of the other bills as well.

The prime focus of the working groups would be to build a broad coalition of support while ensuring a smooth implementation period, Walker said, noting that Massachusetts had to delay its first legal marijuana sales by half a year, to July 2018.

“We have to hear what people in Connecticut want and how do we make it a safe, managed and regulated process, and we need to make it work for the law enforcement also,” Walker said.

Still, some legislators questioned whether the plan would be fiscally responsible. State Rep. Pam Staneski, R-Milford, who voted against the legislation, said in committee debate that creating a new agency to regulate marijuana could cost as much as $15 million in a time of a swelling state deficit. Walker responded that outlays can be reduced by incorporating that authority into the existing consumer protection agency.

Sam Tracy, executive director of the Connecticut Coalition to Regulate Marijuana, called the bill’s passage “exciting.” Even though he preferred the other two pieces of legislation that would lead to direct legalization, he said, this bill represented “a step in the right direction” and holds the promise of stronger consensus as legislators will have the time to study the matter extensively and sort out their differences.

The General Law Committee voted 6–11 to reject a legalization proposal on March 20. Besides substantive differences, Tracy said, one major reason for the divergent outcome is the composition of the respective committee. The Appropriations Committee features several of the strongest advocates of marijuana legalization, including Walker and state Reps. Melissa Ziobron, R-East Hampton, and Robyn Porter, D-New Haven, while the General Law Committee is much smaller and tilts conservative on the issue, Tracy said.

“If you look at all the public hearings, every single time a majority of the people supported legalization,” he said. “I do think that the more [the legislators] learn about this, the more they get comfortable with regulation and get rid of old biases from before under prohibition.”

Yet opponents of legalization did not interpret the bill’s passage as a major setback to their cause. William Huhn, spokesman for CT Smart Approaches to Marijuana, told the News that he was encouraged by the actions in this legislative session: The bill garnered just enough support to pass the committee even though it merely advances the discussion of legalization, and the bill in the Judiciary Committee was not even voted on because of the obvious lack of support. Huhn said that this pattern signals the opposition’s success in persuading lawmakers.

“We really will keep educating legislators and get them to meet with some of the people who work with addiction on a daily basis,” Huhn said of their plans for the coming months. “Once people get involved and see what’s happening, it’s very different than just sitting at a desk, reading a newspaper and listening to what the lobbyists say.”

The Appropriations Committee’s vote came on the last day to advance any legislation to the Assembly floor, which will debate the bill in the next few weeks. Though the bill does not demand any specific plan until Oct. 1, many recommendations have already been submitted to the legislature, ranging from erasure of marijuana conviction records to easing of licensing standards for marijuana cultivation.

Gov. Dannel Malloy had previously opposed marijuana legalization but listed it as a possible source of revenue in his budget recommendations this year.

“I’m not an advocate, but I see this as a legislative decision, and we’ll see what comes out or doesn’t come out,” Malloy said in Thursday press conference.

The General Assembly will adjourn on May 9.

Malcolm Tang |