Fate of legalized marijuana in Connecticut remains hazy
HARTFORD — After coming close this year, Connecticut lawmakers have yet to decide when to make another attempt at legalizing and taxing recreational marijuana.
Legislators acknowledge it’s doubtful there will be a vote this summer or fall. And despite a desire by proponents to revisit the issue when the General Assembly reconvenes in February, it’s unclear whether that will happen. It’s a shortened legislative session and an election year for lawmakers.
“It has been and still is an issue for us. We’re just not sure what the political appetite for it is right now,” said Rep. Joshua Hall, a Democrat from Hartford who leads the General Assembly’s Progressive Caucus. There appears to be more support in the House of Representatives than the Senate for proposal, he said, which creates some hesitancy among lawmakers.
“Having people take hard votes and not coming to fruition, I think that’s probably one of the issues we’re facing,” Hall said.
Proponents have various reasons for wanting to legalize the recreational use of marijuana in Connecticut. They range from addressing inequities in the criminal justice system to generating more revenue for the state’s coffers.
Several bills that addressed such aspects cleared various committees during the recent legislative session, but they did not come up for a vote on the floor of the House and Senate, despite support from Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont.
Opponents argued that legalizing pot would be costly for Connecticut to administer and enforce, outstripping any potential revenue gain.
A study released Monday by Pew Charitable Trusts warned that states like Connecticut, which are seriously considering legalization, should be cautious when estimating how much money can be generated from the potentially volatile revenue source. Pew found it’s difficult to predict demand for a product that was previously illegal in a state and remains illegal federally.
In Nevada, for example, revenue came in 40% higher than anticipated during the first six months of legalization, while it was 45% lower than projected in neighboring California. Ten states and the District of Columbia have legalized recreational marijuana.
“And with more states considering legalizing marijuana, forecasting and budgeting difficulties for revenue from recreational marijuana are likely to become widespread,” according to the Pew report, which warns that such challenges could have serious budgetary consequences for states counting on the money to fund specific programs or close budget gaps.
In Connecticut, Democratic lawmakers have predicted a tax on marijuana could generate up to $70 million in the first year and potentially more than $150 million annually afterward. For a state that has suffered from years of budget deficits, it’s been seen by some as a potential money generator.
Democratic Senate President Pro Tempore Martin Looney of New Haven wants lawmakers to act quickly. He said the marijuana-related bills that were drafted last session have been fully vetted and are ready to go.
“I think it’s critically important,” he said. “The reality is, the states around us already have legal marijuana. … Right now we have lots of Connecticut people going to Massachusetts every day.”
Sales in Massachusetts began in 2018. While marijuana was legalized last year in Vermont and Maine, sales have not yet begun.
Besides losing out on revenue, Looney, Hall and others see the legislation as a fairness issue. Among other things, the proposed legislation included the erasure of certain criminal records.
“For me, it was never a revenue issue. For it was more about social justice reform criminal justice reform because we know that the communities that have been disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs specifically around all that’s happened with black and brown communities,” Hall said. “There may be some revenue, but I don’t think it would be that significant necessarily.”
Some Democrats have suggested putting the question of marijuana legalization before the voters, possibly on the 2020 ballot in the form of a state constitutional amendment question.