CT Will Be Under the Spotlight for Marijuana Legalization in 2021

Connecticut by the Numbers

On Election Day in November, voters in Arizona, Montana, New Jersey, and South Dakota approved marijuana legalization ballot initiatives, edging the numbers upward nationwide.  To date, over 36 states have legalized medical marijuana, including Connecticut, 15 states have now legalized marijuana for adults 21 and over – so-called “recreational” marijuana.  Connecticut is not one of them, but there’s a chance that may change in 2021.

Within weeks of the New Jersey vote, Connecticut’s incoming House Speaker, Matt Ritter, said look for marijuana legalization legislation when the state legislature convenes in January. “I think it will be a very, very close vote in the house,” said Ritter, assessing the chances of passage as 50-50. 

According to the latest Gallup poll, 68% of Americans support marijuana legalization.

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In New England, Massachusetts marijuana sales have officially exceeded $1 billion since the adult-use system launched a little less than two years ago, regulators announced last month. The combination of legalization in Massachusetts and New Jersey may prove to be just the impetus Connecticut’s legislature needs.

“One of the biggest impediments in Connecticut is that legislators have trepidations about how their constituents view the issue,” DeVaughn Ward, Senior Legislative Counsel of the national organization Marijuana Policy Project, explained recently on the podcast Win the Future.  “That’s real money,” Ward emphasized, which the state and municipalities could use for numerous public purposes. “Connecticut has such an opportunity to get into the marketplace, and establish itself as a leader in the industry,” Ward said. “There’s something in this industry for everyone.”

“The careful regulation of cannabis has led to a significant source of revenue for state and local governments at a time when it is deeply needed,” Shaleen Title, a commissioner on the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission (CCC), said recently, amidst a pandemic that shuttered many businesses and adversely impacted the state’s economy. 

CCC Chairman Steven Hoffman said in a press release that this “sales milestone represents licensees’ ability to successfully support a safe, accessible, and effective adult-use industry, and I am pleased the resulting tax benefits will have a significant impact on communities throughout the Commonwealth.”

In September, a study by UConn professor Fred Carstensen, who serves as the director of the Connecticut Center for Economic Analysis at the UConn School of Business, concluded that legalizing recreational marijuana in Connecticut would generate between $784 million and $952 million in new state tax revenue over five years. 

The study, funded by the Marijuana Policy Project, says direct new revenue from legalization would range from $35 million to $48 million in the first year of sales to as high as $223 million in the fifth year, stating that "No matter which tax regime the state chooses and no matter how it spends the new revenues, legalization will generate significant job creation, strong growth in GDP, and hundreds of millions in new tax revenues.''

“The sky hasn’t fallen” in Massachusetts after their legalization law took effect, Ward said, a reality that Connecticut can see first-hand, just across the state line, as it considers the issue once again.

At the start of the 2020 legislative session, Governor Lamont supported an extensive legislative proposal, and key members of the administration testified in support of legalization at a public hearing just weeks before the session was cut-short due to the COVID crisis and the State Capitol was closed.

“We can no longer stick our heads in the sand,” Lamont wrote in written testimony submitted in March. “Cannabis is currently, and will be increasingly, available to residents of Connecticut.”

Connecticut legalized the sale of medical marijuana in 2012 and it has decriminalized the possession of small amounts of pot, but no legalization bill has come to a floor vote in either chamber of the General Assembly.  Yet.

DeVaughn told interviewer Brett Broesder on the Connecticut podcast that the prospects of action by the Connecticut legislature, likely to include provisions dealing with social justice reforms and permitting municipalities to add a tax to marijuana sales with that portion of the revenue staying in the community, could add to the bill’s overall support.

Components of last year’s proposal, such as developing recommendations by a Commission on Equity, and ensuring that the new market for marijuana would be open to small business owners are anticipated again.

On the federal level, the U.S. House took a sit-up-and-take-notice step just this month. The House voted in favor of the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment, and Expungement (MORE) Act in a 228-164 vote.

The vote as been described as the first time in half a century that a chamber of Congress has voted on a bill to end the federal prohibition of marijuana.  The MORE Act is one of the most robust marijuana reform bills ever introduced in the U.S. Congress, according to advocates for the legislation. If enacted, it would end the war on cannabis at the federal level by removing it from the Controlled Substances Act and ending criminal penalties under federal law.

However, that bill is not expected to be considered by the Republican-majority U.S. Senate.  Whether that situation changes may depend on the outcome of two Senate races in Georgia in January, which could change the balance of power in the Senate, and the incoming Biden administration’s posture on the issue.  It’s likely that for the foreseeable future, more of the action will come at the state level – and Connecticut is clearly on the radar screen.  It is one of five states, including three in New England, which  will be the focus of attention by the Marijuana Policy Project in the year ahead.   

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