Connecticut Lawmakers Weigh Adult Use Legalization

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On Friday, Connecticut lawmakers called upon stakeholders to testify about a bill that would establish a regulatory framework for the licensed sale of adult use in the state, providing space to debate key topics, including labor rights, equity provisions, home grows, and the influence of elected officials in the industry.

Members of the General Law Committee began what ultimately became a six-hour public hearing by addressing the Department of Consumer Protection, represented by Commissioner Michelle Seagull, and Rodrick Marriott, who directs the Drug Control Division. When asked to provide a time frame for getting retail cannabis shops up and running, the Commissioner reiterated that the process will take approximately two years.

“If it passes, people are going to be anxious to know when this will launch,” Seagull said. “Once everything is developed, regardless of how you set up the licensing structure, something has to be defined as to who can apply and when. And then, applications need to go out. People need time to reply to those applications. Those need to be reviewed. And even after licenses are issued, the product itself takes several months to grow, plus the businesses need to be built out.”

Moreover, based on the state’s experience with medical cannabis, the Commissioner said that there will likely be several local bans on adult use, particularly because, under the current bill, the yet-to-be-formed Cannabis Control Commision won’t issue a license to a business without a town’s zoning approval. However, the Department of Consumer Protection also noted that, over time, more and more towns in Connecticut have approved medical cannabis facilities. And so, even though widespread local bans on adult use can be expected, it is likely that local jurisdictions will eventually soften their stance.

On equity

During the hearing, State Senator Kevin Witkos (R) took issue with the bill’s provisions for equity applicants. “I personally find it extremely difficult and frustrating that somebody who’s been convicted of a crime has a higher degree, or is placed on a higher consideration for a permit than somebody who has been law-abiding their entire life,” he said.

In response to questions regarding what Witkos qualified as “preferential treatment,” Commissioner Seagull posited the bill “as an opportunity to address some of the unfairness of how our drug laws have been enforced historically.”

“Well, do you think it’s fair that if we erase the records of those convicted, that now we’re giving them those individuals the opportunity to jump start those that have been law-abiding?” asked Witkos, in relation to a provision that would allow equity applicants to apply for a license three months before general applicants. (Existing medical cannabis license holders would be able to apply with the equity applicants.)   

“I think there are a lot of good reasons for trying to redress the historical unfairness, and so we’re supportive of the equity concepts in here,” said Seagull.

This thread continued when Jason Ortiz, Political Director of Connecticut United for Reform and Equity and Vice President of the Minority Cannabis Business Association, argued that the children of anyone who was incarcerated on cannabis charges should also qualify as an equity applicant. He also encouraged lawmakers to include language for the implementation of an enforcement mechanism in the bill to ensure compliance with equity provisions. Then, when asked by State Representative Michael D’Agostino (D) for recommendations on how to craft a definition of an equity applicant that can survive legal challenges, Ortiz responded with the following:

“We suggest that equity applicants be qualified based on their interaction with the criminal justice system—it’s a very clear punishment, very clear damages were done to their lives. And you can use that without entering specific racial quotas. That is the biggest problem that we’ve seen . . . That’s why, for us, the equity applicant qualifications have to be rather narrow. Because, while it’s disproportionately people of color that have been arrested, it’s not exclusively people of color that have been arrested, right? So, another equity applicant that we would seek to include in the definition would actually be veterans who have lost or had anything less than honorable discharge for cannabis possession. Because that is not exactly an arrest, but they could have their pension removed.”

On labor

Later in the session, Ron Petronella, Secretary Treasurer of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 371, asked legislators to consider requiring labor peace agreements, which already exist in neighboring New York. According to Petronella, this will enable cannabis workers “who wish to form a union the ability to do so without coercion by their employers,” as well as help them access a living wage, along with health and pension benefits.

Collective bargaining agreements, he added, “are instrumental in ensuring that workers have an independent voice and can speak out about any complaints [and] concerns without fear of retaliation.” If the labor peace agreements are included in the bill, Petronella clarified, workers at each facility would still be at liberty to decide whether they want to organize.  

On home cultivation

Mid-hearing, a conversation on the price and potency of cannabis spurred State Representative Vincent Candelora (R) to consider the role of public officials in the cannabis industry. After child psychiatrist Yifrah Kaminer expressed his unequivocal opposition to home cultivation, Candelora pointed out that “a select few people are going to make boatloads of money. I mean, we have a former U.S. Speaker of the House now who has gotten behind this whole industry.”

“And so,” Candelora continued, “if this is going to happen, maybe we do look at home grows, and maybe it is safer.” Then, he asked Kaminer directly: “in your travels, have you seen legislation that would be proposed that might prohibit current and retired public officials from getting involved in the medical or in the marijuana industry period and maybe putting a provision like that forward?”

“In some countries, there is a cooling period,” Kaminer said, adding that he’d like for public officials to have to wait three years before making use of their influence.

Cody Roberts, Communication Director for Connecticut chapter of NORML, was the last stakeholder to speak. After he stated that he “will not support any legalization bill that does not include grow rights, equity programs, and expungement of cannabis convictions,” Representative D’Agostino warned reform advocates not to take on an all-or-nothing approach.

“With respect to home growing—I know people feel very strongly about home growing—but I said this last week, and I want to say it again to make sure it’s communicated out there: We need 95 votes for this to pass. I don’t know if the support is there if it includes home grow. I appreciate taking a black and white position, but I would urge the advocate community to think really about that because if you don’t do it now, it’s years and years away. And if the position is: It’s gotta have this or we won’t support it, that’s fine. But then you may not get a bill, and then we’re just stuck with the current situation.”

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