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Connecticut Senate will vote on recreational cannabis for third time

The state Senate will be forced to approve a recreational cannabis bill for a third time after the state House passed the legislation and rejected a change to the social equity applicant definition.

The House passed the bill by a vote of 76-62. All but one Republican as well as 12 Democrats, including state Rep. Anthony Nolan, D-New London, voted against the measure. The House also passed the budget implementer bill 89-50, with some amendments, so the Senate will have to reapprove that legislation on Thursday as well.

The Senate had passed a recreational cannabis bill for the second time on Tuesday but drew a veto threat from Gov. Ned Lamont in the process. Lamont's Chief of Staff Paul Mounds sent out a statement Tuesday evening opposing the amendment, which would have included people with past cannabis convictions as social equity applicants, saying it "opens the floodgates for tens of thousands of previously ineligible applicants to enter the adult-use cannabis industry."

"That is not equity, and Governor Lamont will veto this bill if it reaches his desk in its current form," he said.

As a result, House Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, and House Majority Leader Jason Rojas, D-East Hartford, told reporters Wednesday that the House would scrap that language and move back to the deal struck with the governor, in order to avoid a veto.

The House did keep one Senate change, though, which would ban elected officials from participating in the cannabis industry for two years after leaving office.

Southeastern Connecticut senators were frustrated, though not shocked, at the possibility of being called back into session and voting on the cannabis bill once again.

“I’m dismayed but I’m not surprised by it,” said Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague. “I would vote for it a third time, but I do think there will be changes to it next year akin to what we did with the police accountability bill.”

Osten said her understanding was that the amendment introduced by the Senate on Tuesday was put in for the benefit of a handful of House members.

“At this point I just want to get this over the threshold,” she added.

Sens. Paul Formica, R-East Lyme, and Norm Needleman, D-Essex, both raised concerns about the number of senators who would be missing for an extended special session depending on the scheduling. The Senate is scheduled to convene on Thursday morning to debate and vote on the cannabis bill. Formica is on vacation, so he missed Tuesday’s vote, as did several other senators. Needleman is planning on leaving for a vacation on Thursday. Osten and state Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, said the Senate’s numbers could be affected when they vote on the bill again.

“I understand the language that the governor objected to was left in the bill as it was transmitted to the House,” Formica said. “I would expect that if it comes back, the language change will probably be a little more palatable, but it will still be insufficient.”

Formica and Somers joined their Republican colleagues in denouncing not only the content of the budget implementer and cannabis bills, but the timing of their release and the process of getting them passed.

“The past few weeks have been like a tennis match,” Formica said.

Somers said the bill needs a longer look, given the myriad of last-minute changes.

“I think it’s time that proponents of the bill took a pause and tried to regroup and really had more people on board before they try to put a bill through that’s incomplete and not thorough. That bill never came through the Public Health Committee, too, which I think is a big issue,” said Somers, who is a ranking member on the Public Health Committee. “It’s a mess, that’s what this bill is. It needs to be thoroughly vetted and to come through Public Health.”

Somers and other Republicans also have taken exception to a cannabis bill that they say is more focused on business than the public good. Part of the problem, she said, is that not enough of the projected revenue is being diverted to addiction services.

Needleman said he wasn’t excited about the prospect of a third vote on cannabis, but it wouldn’t change his vote.

“We’ve spent a tremendous amount of time focused on the equity issue, which I think is really important,” he said. “I know plenty of people my age who experimented, got in trouble, and got away without getting into serious problems. The people whose parents couldn’t bail them out got into the system, and their lives were ruined.”

Formica and Somers echoed the concerns of Senate Republicans about the budget implementer bill, too, saying Democrats had added too much into the legislation and in effect had made it an “aircraft carrier bill.” The state Senate will have to vote on the implementer again, as well. Senators passed it on Tuesday by a vote of 23-7, but House Democrats expected to make minor changes Wednesday.

Somers downplayed the idea that Democrats put forward an outsized implementer bill because Republicans in the House took advantage of Ritter allowing extended debate rather than calling the question and forcing votes on controversial bills.

“Our job is to ask questions about bills. Part of being a good legislator is making sure the bill is crafted in a way that makes sense,” she said, adding that talk of filibustering was a distraction for the cannabis bill in particular. “I think if they had the votes and they knew that this bill was well-written and well-received, then they could have certainly called the question. They don’t have the votes. That’s the problem.”


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