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    Local News
    Monday, April 15, 2024

    $1 million in legal cannabis revenue directed to community groups

    Norwich ― Almost a million dollars of the revenue generated by the state’s burgeoning cannabis program is being used in eastern Connecticut to address decades of fallout from the War on Drugs that state officials say disproportionately targeted communities of color through its failed drug policies.

    Eighteen grants announced Tuesday at Norwich Youth & Family Services headquarters included $80,000 for the Norwich-based Madonna Place in support of formerly incarcerated fathers in Norwich, New London, and Willimantic to improve their relationships with their children.

    It included $35,000 for the Groton-based STEPS Inc. to expand efforts to empower not only young women in middle and high school but also their families.

    Ginne-Rae Clay, the executive director of the Connecticut Social Equity Council, which is charged with making sure proceeds from the state cannabis program make it back to the communities hit hardest by the previous prohibition, said she was a child when the War on Drugs began under President Richard Nixon’s administration.

    “It was an attack on Black and Brown families. It was an attack on poor people,” she said.

    Clay described the legalization of cannabis and the reinvestment of some of the proceeds as a way to “turn the table” in communities affected by disproportionate incarceration rates and the challenges of reentering society.

    “Many communities were left behind. Many people left those areas that were being targeted and that were devastated. This is an opportunity for those folks who were left behind to turn their lives around,” she said.

    Experts point to evidence from groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, which in 2020 found Black people nationwide are 3.6 times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana possession despite similar usage rates.

    The grants are aimed at communities identified by the state for a combination of high rates of poverty and convictions for drug-related offenses. The money came from a $1 million pot awarded by the state to the Community Foundation of Eastern Connecticut so the money could be reinvested in the “disproportionately impacted areas.”

    Clay told attendees her agency is responsible for making sure people in those communities have a fair and equitable seat in the new legal cannabis industry and for directing a portion of the proceeds to social service programs there.

    “These businesses are owned and operated and controlled by people who have been impacted by the war on drugs,” she said. “They are formerly incarcerated. Their families have been impacted. There are people who are living in the middle or grew up in the midst of the devastation.”

    Adult cannabis use was approved in Connecticut in June 2021. Sale of the product by licensed retailers began in January 2023. Sales of adult-use cannabis for the month of May alone totaled nearly $11.5 million, according to the state Department of Consumer Protection.

    The Community Foundation of Eastern Connecticut, which serves 42 municipalities in New London, Windham and Tolland counties, was one of six agencies to receive a Community Reinvestment Pilot Program grant from the equity council.

    Miles Daniels, executive director of New London-based Community Level Up and a former East Lyme High School football player, said his agency is using its $50,000 grant to add more staff for evening enrichment programs in financial literacy, the stock market, creative arts and leadership.

    Participation in the enrichment programs is required for the 200 students in the Community Level Up basketball program and up to 400 students in the track program starting this spring, according to Daniels.

    He said money will also go toward the organization’s presence every Wednesday at New London High School.

    “Right now we’re finding upperclassmen who don’t really know what they’re doing in their future,” he said. “To make a long story short, we find what they really want to do and try to get them to work to be the best at that.”

    Shiela Hayes, the former president of the NAACP Norwich Branch and a newly elected member of the Norwich City Council, said a $75,000 grant to the NAACP will go toward the Million Jobs Campaign to help formerly incarcerated people find jobs. She said the group is hoping to partner with the Eastern Connecticut Workforce Investment Board’s Manufacturing Pipeline Initiative.

    The pipeline program is a national model for recruiting unemployed or underemployed workers who don’t necessarily have experience in the field.

    She said drug-related incarceration has directly impacted many families in Norwich, New London and Willimantic, where the goal now is to put them “on a path where they can improve their opportunities for employment and contribute back more positively to the community.”

    Katie Caldwell of the Norwich-based Connecticut Pardon Team said her agency is using its $5,000 grant to focus on erasing conviction records for those 55 and older.

    In addition to being a deterrent to finding a job, she said an arrest record can lock people out of housing opportunities. Many calls to her group, which serves the whole state, come from those she described as panicked about their housing prospects in a market where demand outstrips supply and landlords can be more selective when it comes to renter selection.

    “For most of them, because their records were so long ago, they’re getting what’s called an expedited pardon,” she said. “There’s no hearing, so they’re getting their pardons right away so they can get into the housing they need.”

    Clay said the equity council must ensure the legalization of cannabis, which is regulated by the state Department of Consumer Protection, benefits those whose lives changed for the worse because of the prohibition on marijuana and its aggressive enforcement.

    It’s a timeline that has taken the state from the failed War on Drugs to “the legalization of a plant, of a drug, that at one point caused so much harm,” according to Clay.

    “We are not causing harm,” she said. “We’re causing hope.”

    e.regan@theday.com

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