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Local proponents advocate for equity in recreational cannabis

In the year 2000, at the age of 16, Jason Ortiz, who grew up in New London, was made to miss his junior year of high school at Norwich Free Academy because he smoked a joint.

Ortiz, who recently moved back to New London, is now executive director of Students for Sensible Drug Policy and a member of Gov. Ned Lamont's equity discussion group. He said his experience in high school informed his activism in later years.

“Me and a friend were walking and smoking on the way to school. Somebody called the school and said, ‘Hey, these kids are smoking,’” Ortiz said. “As soon as we got on campus the security surrounded us with their little golf carts. It was a bit shocking to me. At 16, I didn’t really know about marijuana laws. They were very aggressive with us, like we just murdered somebody.”

This happened in November, and Ortiz was expelled for the rest of the school year. He said it was a year of isolation and research. As he spent more time by himself, he learned about politics, as well as how people of color often get the worst of selective enforcement of marijuana laws.

'Sausage-making'

Despite Democrats having full control of the state legislature, and despite the governor’s general support for legalizing recreational cannabis, there is still disagreement regarding which bill to move forward. There is Senate Bill 888, often called “the governor’s bill,” and House Bill 6387, referred to as New Haven Democratic Rep. Robyn Porter’s bill.

Ortiz and other advocates say the difference between the bills seems minuscule but is massive. It’s related to the definition of equity applicant. The equity applicant program is designed for those who have been disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs to have an easier and separate process to start a marijuana enterprise rather than competing with corporations. Ortiz and others say there’s one specific part of the equity definition that undermines the program.

Ortiz said he supported the original definition of an equity applicant: if you or a family member were arrested on cannabis-related charges, if you live in a disproportionately affected community and if you are a tribal member.

“If that was it, I would’ve said, ‘Let’s go,’ but in the new version, they added an ‘or,’ and it’s a big ‘or,’” Ortiz said. The new language includes “‘or if the business is run day to day by somebody who also qualifies as an equity applicant,'" he said. "This means if a business is a billion-dollar business and they want to apply as an equity applicant, they just have to say their manager is a person of color, or a person who was impacted.”

Lamont’s Chief of Staff Paul Mounds has said the administration is not responsible for language stipulating that a private company could qualify as an equity applicant through hiring people that qualify as equity applicants.

When asked during a news conference earlier this month why, exactly, there was disagreement among Democratic leaders regarding recreational marijuana, Mounds said it was a product of the legislative process.

“It’s part of the sausage-making. It’s nothing contentious,” he said. “But the one part of the process that’s always consistent is, it’s got to be a bill that can get to the governor’s desk that he can sign.”

Ortiz and Porter likened the clause to language in an Illinois bill that would have favored non-equity applicants as long as they hired qualifying individuals; critics had dubbed that "the slave master clause."

He said he was disappointed, too, since there’s a lot in the governor’s bill that recreational cannabis advocates like. For example, he applauded micro licenses, allowing people to slowly graduate up to a bigger license in the future, and provisions allowing for homegrown marijuana.

Luis Cotto — a New London resident, alternate Planning and Zoning Commission member and cannabis professional — has founded a company called Gene Traders, which is on the technical side of growing. He was sharp in his denunciation of the governor’s bill for the same reasons as Ortiz.

The governor's bill aims for 40% of cannabis license holders to be equity applicants, but "doesn’t actually recognize predatory licensing practices where businesses end up getting licenses under the name of an equity applicant,” Cotto said. “The applicant basically gets a small salary to hold the license, and the majority of the profits go to somebody else.”

He noted that Porter’s bill has almost 30 co-sponsors, many of whom belong to the Progressive Caucus and/or the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus, whereas SB 888 currently has two co-sponsors.

“Our bill is pushing on a sense of equity, making disparaged communities regain a lot that they lost due to the drug war,” Cotto said. “That naturally leads to more small-to-medium-sized businesses, and it takes up more retail commercial property. That means that all these empty storefronts that are pretty much in any city, especially in New London, would end up being taken by small-to-medium-sized businesses. That means more property taxes that go back to the local municipalities. More local employees, too. We know that small-to-medium-sized businesses push innovation, creativity, growth. Corporations do not do that.”

Ortiz also said legalizing recreational marijuana could fill some of the empty storefronts and spaces that plague New London and contribute to the city's jobs market and tax base.

Lamont expressed willingness to negotiate with disparate groups to come to a resolution during a news conference this past week.

“I want to do the right thing. Broadly, we agree that a lot of the revenues from legalized marijuana, regulated marijuana, ought to go to the most distressed communities,” he said. “The specifics around that, Jonathan Harris has taken the lead, but I think we’re rowing in the same direction.”

Harris is Lamont's senior adviser.

Tribal connection

Cotto noted that recreational marijuana activists have fought for Connecticut’s tribal nations to be recognized as equity applicants in recreational marijuana legislation. He said activists spoke with folks in the tribes, and they were excited about the prospect. He added that the current description of a tribal equity applicant — a member of tribal land — doesn’t specify whether the person must come from a federally recognized tribe or any tribe in the governor’s bill.

Mashantucket-Pequot Tribal Councilor Danny Menihan attended an April 20 rally at the state Capitol in support of Porter’s recreational marijuana bill. Still, Menihan was careful during an interview with The Day not to come out against Lamont, who he says is a friend of the tribe, not to speak for other minority groups and not to project his personal feelings about recreational marijuana legalization to the entire tribe.

He focused his answers on agriculture, saying the tribe is making a push to make its farming more robust, and arguing that it has the necessary agricultural infrastructure in place to grow marijuana.

“Since I was elected to the (Tribal) council for 2016, I’ve been hands-on with agricultural efforts starting with our community garden at our child development center,” he said. “That led to other efforts with UConn experimenting and researching agriculture in general.”

Menihan and others fear legislation may not come to fruition this year, but he hopes it will.

“If the state’s choosing to do marijuana at a recreational level, I’m not saying that the tribe would or wouldn’t, but that right is there,” he said. “That opportunity opens the door. It’s no secret that it’s an industry we’d look to get into.”

As federally recognized tribes, the Mashantuckets and the Mohegans are considered sovereign nations, meaning activities on their reservations are subject to federal law. In 2014, the U.S. Department of Justice said tribes could grow and sell marijuana on their lands provided they adhered to the same regulations that apply in states that have legalized the drug. 

Tribes in Oregon, Washington and other states have entered into tribal–state agreements relating to marijuana cultivation and sales.

The Mohegans have said in the past that they have no interest in the marijuana business.

“The Mohegan Tribe through Mohegan Gaming & Entertainment, is now a multinational company that operates in many jurisdictions,” Chuck Bunnell, the tribe's chief of staff, said in February of last year. “Some of those jurisdictions make it difficult if not impossible for us to be involved in the marijuana industry and retain our gaming licenses. A few are so strict as to prevent us from having investments or partners involved."

Menihan mostly stuck to what the Mashantucket-Pequot Tribe testified during a Judiciary Committee hearing in February: "We are not advocating for or against Senate Bill 888. Rather, we simply ask that if the legislature decides to move forward with legalizing cannabis, it consider how Indian Tribes may be involved.”

He said the tribe has been licensed for hemp but decided not to renew that license last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In the meantime, the tribe has set up greenhouses and used the land designated for hemp to grow food.

Menihan mentioned that Porter and others who support her bill gave the Mashantuckets an opportunity to “be of influence to ensure language that the tribe was comfortable with and felt could help us be a good neighbor.”

Steady habits

As Connecticut residents continue to buy weed in other states, such as Massachusetts, marijuana advocates ask: Why not Connecticut? They think fear-driven misinformation from anti-cannabis parties, long-held attitudes and business interests are to blame.

“Connecticut, generally speaking, moves cautiously,” Ortiz said. “Up to this point there’s been such a tremendous amount of money and effort put into confusing people on the truth about cannabis and people who use it. The disinformation campaign has been real, and unfortunately many of our older folks believe things they were lied to about. It’s been a challenge for activists to try and undo all the misinformation, but it does feel like this year we have hit a critical mass of folks who believe the current policy isn’t working. I think the trust is there more now than in the past, and it’s after years of community organization, education, forums, movies, rallies, etc.”

He referenced people of faith in the state who recently came out against legalization.

Cotto said he feels arguments against cannabis related to child safety are made in bad faith.

"We have a product in our bathroom we tell kids to put in their mouths twice a day: toothpaste. On the back of it, it says if you swallow too much, call poison control. Cannabis doesn’t have that,” he said. “If we can keep our kids safe from toothpaste, we can keep them safe from cannabis. All they’re using is public fear. Anywhere they legalize, the usage of teenagers goes down. They’re just using the drug war fear-mongering playbook.”

s.spinella@theday.com

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