Time to engage the debate on legalizing pot in Connecticut

It is time to engage a discussion in Connecticut about the pros and cons of legalizing the recreational use of marijuana by adults aged 21 and older. For that reason, the introduction of a legalization bill by Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven, is a welcomed action in that it will likely lead to hearings.

The decision by Massachusetts voters in the Nov. 8 election to legalize the purchase, possession, home growth and use of marijuana has changed the equation. In that neighboring state, voters petitioned the legalization initiative onto the ballot, a power not granted to citizens in Connecticut, where the authority to pass laws rests exclusively with the legislature.

When it comes to pot, Massachusetts is now in a legal limbo. The legislature has sent a bill to Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican who opposes legalization, delaying until July 2018 setting the regulations for the sale of pot and the opening of retail shops. Technically, it remains illegal to sell marijuana in the Bay State though it is now legal to possess and use it.

In time, however, Massachusetts will follow the lead of Colorado and a handful of other states and set up a mechanism for selling and taxing the drug. When that happens, Connecticut residents will be making the trek north to buy the drug, with all tax and commerce benefits flowing to Massachusetts.

That does not mean legalizing the recreational use of pot in Connecticut should be automatic. This experiment is a new one. Colorado passed a ballot initiative for legalization in 2012 and shops opened there in 2014. Following its lead and ending prohibition is a very big decision because, once granted, it would be very difficult to roll legalization back.

Will legalization for adults encourage more adolescent use and abuse? The U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration notes that 12.5 percent of Colorado's young people ages 12-17 admit to using pot, highest in the nation. Connecticut, at 7.9 percent, is near the national average of 7.2 percent. Supporters of the Colorado law, however, note that the state rate in that regard was higher than average before legalization and has not changed much.

Could marijuana legalization lead to more car crashes tied to impaired driving? So far, Colorado has seen no evidence of that.

If Connecticut were to approve legalized use of the drug, should it set limits on THC potency, which determines the strength of a strain of pot? In Colorado, potent candy and other edible marijuana treats have proved a particular problem, landing patients in the emergency room because the effects were so intense.

And there is the fact that cultivation, possession and use of marijuana remains a serious federal crime. This means banks will not allow the use of credit and debit cards for marijuana transactions, turning it into a largely cash industry where it has become legal. That can invite crime and corruption.

President Obama decided to let the experiment proceed, rather than confront a state with a federal criminal crackdown. But with a new president, and the nation is about to get one, that can change. Should Connecticut proceed given that federal uncertainty?

Meanwhile, marijuana users argue they deserve the right to legally use their drug of choice to chill out, using a substance less powerful than the legal drug of alcohol, known to be physically addictive and sometimes deadly.

Legalization would largely remove the criminal element, eliminate a police enforcement and judicial burden, and generate tax revenues.

It is an interesting debate. Connecticut should not shy from it.

 

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Tim Cotter, Staff Writer Julia Bergman and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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