Zoe Berg, Photo Editor

Last month, Gov. Ned Lamont sent a recreational marijuana legalization bill to the state Senate. Yet, some New Haveners are questioning its funding and health consequences.

On Feb. 10, Lamont proposed Senate Bill 888 — a plan to establish a recreational marijuana market in the Nutmeg State. If approved, adults over the age of 21 will be able to legally possess one-and-a-half ounces of cannabis from a licensed retailer starting May 2022. The legislation could have a significant impact on New Haven — which is currently facing a $66 million projected deficit — if taxation and licensing revenue is reinvested into municipalities. 

But while the bill commits 50 percent of revenues to municipalities generally, some members of the Elm City community said it fails to make a large enough commitment specifically to communities that have been disproportionately targeted by cannabis prohibition enforcement. Others, meanwhile, take issue with the bill from a health and safety standpoint.

“The highest priority [for legalization] would be making sure that the market is accessible for individuals who have been impacted by the war on drugs and the criminalization of communities of color,” New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker wrote in an email to the News. “We need to target opportunities to minority owned businesses not just with access to permits but with capital to start those businesses.”

Lamont’s bill currently does not specify how much of the revenue from legalization will be reinvested into specific municipalities like New Haven. Instead, an 11-member Equity Commission will be tasked with making recommendations about how tax revenue collected for Connecticut’s towns — 50 percent of all revenue after 2024 — will be split up among the communities.

According to the Marijuana Policy Project, direct revenues from cannabis licensing and taxes for the first two years after the bill is passed will be put into the general fund, which finances state operations.

Elicker is among those that opposes the bill’s allocation of potential marijuana tax funds to the state’s general fund. He wrote to the News that this aspect of the current bill “has the potential to drive policymakers to make decisions based on revenue rather than on health, safety and the well-being of residents.”

Elicker added that New Haven does not currently have the dedicated streams of funding needed to support a more social services-centered public safety model with a reentry welcome center and community crisis response team. He said legalization could be a way for the city to diversify its revenue streams. Currently 90 percent of New Haven’s local costs are paid for through property taxes.

Several other New Haveners agreed with Elicker, claiming that the bill’s commitment to equity is not strong enough.

“We need to see more commitment from the governor in terms of investing in our cities which [are] engines of growth for the state,” Ward 1 Alder Eli Sabin ’22 said. “The governor’s bill needs to put more emphasis on supporting New Haven and communities like it across the state.”

Sabin said funds from legalization should be allocated towards addiction treatment and employment programs for formerly incarcerated people. He said residents of cities like New Haven, Hartford, Bridgeport and Waterbury have felt some of the worst effects of cannabis incarceration, and should therefore be given a portion of taxation revenue.

The Office of the Governor did not respond to a request to comment on the financial structure of its proposed bill. 

Tiya Proctor-Floyd ’23 accompanied state Rep. Josh Elliott of Hamden to Lamont’s cannabis equity discussion group prior to the release of the bill. She said Lamont is treating the bill like a “cash cow” for the general fund because only 50 percent of taxation revenue will go back into remedial funds for municipalities.

Proctor-Floyd’s parents own a recreational marijuana store in Seattle. The meetings she attended — from October to January — were set up by Lamont’s office and invited community members to come with a plan for what equitable cannabis legalization might look like. She said those in attendance included local faith leaders, pro-legalization advocates and representatives from the governor’s office.

The commission submitted their recommendations to the governor in late January, though when the bill was announced, Proctor-Floyd said it included very few of the group’s recommendations. She said equity considerations should be written into the bill, rather than left up to a commission with no guarantee that recommendations will come to fruition.

Ray Pantalena, the owner of a medical marijuana dispensary on Whalley Avenue, agreed that taxation revenue would be wisely spent on communities impacted by marijuana incarceration. His store, Affinity Health & Wellness, has been in New Haven for 18 months, and he said that over the course of the pandemic, more people have been coming in for consultations.

“This has been a very challenging year for everybody,” said Pantalena. “We did more consultations in the last eight months than we certainly did in the first eight months.”

Pantalena said medical marijuana patients in New Haven depend heavily on stores like his for expertise and discussions on their underlying conditions. He said that at this point, recreational legalization is only a matter of time, and he is “optimistic” that the bill will pass either this year or next year. 

As of March this year, New Haven has the highest number of registered medical marijuana patients, at 12,278, in Connecticut. Across the state, more than 50,000 residents are enrolled in the medical marijuana program.

In February 2019, the legalization of recreational marijuana was proposed to the Board of Alders by former Ward 1 Alder Hacibey Catalbasoglu ’19. Catalbasoglu’s bill called for a hearing to discuss the effects of legalization on Elm City residents. The hearing never occurred.

Since then, Sabin said board conversations on legalization have been few and far between, in part because it is primarily a state issue. Recently, he spoke with several other New Haven representatives including New Haven state Rep. Robyn Porter and state Senate President Pro Tempore Martin Looney about some of the legalization bills currently on the table. 

“We are definitely — from a New Haven perspective — very supportive of any legalization legislation that focuses on equity and making sure that the communities that bore the brunt of the war on drugs [in] the past get their records expunged and have opportunities to be part of the legal industry,” Sabin told the News.

In addition to legalizing recreational marijuana going forward, Lamont’s bill would also automatically expunge marijuana-related convictions from before October 2015 and eliminate cannabis possession as a basis for parole revocation for those who have not been ordered by the court to avoid the drug.

Elicker told the News that although the number of residents that have been incarcerated for cannabis related charges has gone down over the years, the long-term effect of criminalization still impacts the city. He said these individuals often become trapped in a cycle of reoffending because the state does not provide them with adequate social services.

“[Expungement of records is] only the bare minimum and the bare minimum is not enough,” Elicker said. “We need to ensure those residents have access to the market and the opportunity to build wealth from the industry now that it is legal if they so choose.”

Proctor-Floyd agreed. She told the News that automatic expungement will not fix the psychological damage done to communities. 

The bill would also eliminate cannabis possession as a basis for parole revocation for those who have not been ordered by the court to avoid the drug. But Proctor-Floyd said the fact that the bill does not allow all parolees to possess marijuana means the reform effort does not go far enough.

“People on parole, even if they are deemed drug dependent, should have access to [cannabis] the same way that they have access to alcohol,” Proctor-Floyd said. 

She fears that those on parole with a dependency on cannabis could turn to harder drugs if they cannot use cannabis.

Lamont’s bill would not legalize personal cultivation, though it would reduce the penalties for doing so. Proctor-Floyd said that this is another problem with the bill. She said the criminalization of home-grown cannabis would hinder the state’s ability to decrease black market sales and create problems for those who depend on steady access to medical marijuana.

Though not all agree with the changing discussions revolving around marijuana legalization.

Deepak D’Souza, a professor of psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine, has qualms with the entire question of recreational marijuana legalization. D’Souza, who has conducted research on the effects of cannabis for almost 25 years under the National Institutes of Health, sent a letter to the Connecticut General Assembly last month calling for the legislators to reassess the health consequences of legalization.

D’Souza said that cannabis can have adverse impacts on young people and the developing brain, raise the rate of cannabis use disorder, increase the prevalence of motor vehicle accidents and harm those with serious mental illness. Cannabis use disorder refers to those who spend too much time, effort or money acquiring and using cannabis, without necessarily being addicted.

D’Souza outlined his concerns in his letter to the assembly and said legislators should recognize the “trickle-down effect” of commercialization on young people.

“Acutely cannabis and THC impairs cognitive functions that are essential to scholastic life,” D’Souza wrote in an email to the News. “Cannabis is associated with deficits in cognitive [ability] that are essential for learning and memory.”

He added that in states like Colorado — where recreational marijuana use is legalized — the black market for cannabis continues to thrive because it can offer lower prices. 

According to PBS News Hour, Colorado has experienced a surge in black market activity since it legalized cannabis in 2012.

“It’s a sad state of affairs when we need to balance the budget by the taxes generated from selling drugs,” D’Souza said. “Surely, we can do better than that?”

The United States Drug Enforcement Administration classifies marijuana as a Schedule I drug alongside heroin, LSD and ecstasy.

Natalie Kainz | natalie.kainz@yale.edu