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Connecticut lawmakers legalize recreational marijuana

Come July 1, possession of marijuana will be legal in Connecticut, and retail sales will likely be underway by May 2022.

The state Senate voted 16 to 11 Thursday to approve the use of recreational cannabis and sent the bill to Gov. Ned Lamont for signature. Lamont said he would sign the bill.

A monthslong process to legalize marijuana, which some lawmakers noted has been decades in the making, at last reached a conclusion.

Locally, state Sens. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, and Norm Needleman, D-Essex, voted yes. State Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, voted no. State Sen. Paul Formica, R-East Lyme, who is on vacation, did not cast a vote. On Wednesday, all four senators had agreed that the extended nature of the special session would cause a number of legislators to miss Thursday's vote. A total of nine senators statewide were absent or did not vote.

The Senate was voting on the bill for a third time. The state House failed to call the bill in time during the regular session, causing a special session and requiring a second vote. When the Senate passed the bill a second time, an amendment drew a veto threat from Lamont. The first vote was 19-17 in favor, and the second vote was 19-12.

The governor's Chief of Staff Paul Mounds sent out a statement Tuesday evening opposing an amendment that 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 Democrats scrapped that language and moved back to the deal initially struck with the governor and sent the bill back to the Senate.

"The war on cannabis, which was at its core a war on people in Black and Brown communities, not only caused injustices and increased disparities in our state, it did little to protect public health and safety. That's why I introduced a bill and worked hard with our partners in the legislature and other stakeholders to create a comprehensive framework for a securely regulated market that prioritizes public health, public safety, social justice, and equity," Lamont said in a statement. "I look forward to signing the bill and moving beyond this terrible period of incarceration and injustice."

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.

On Thursday, Republican senators reiterated arguments against the bill, saying it hamstrung law enforcement and raised health concerns for adolescents, and that the motives for the bill were financial rather than moral. Multiple Republicans said Connecticut shouldn't legalize recreational cannabis just because surrounding states are doing so or have done it. Instead, they said, Connecticut should be an "oasis" in New England.

Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, took exception to a claim from Sen. Tony Hwang, R-Fairfield, that he hadn't heard enough from Democratic proponents of the bill.

"In 1971 when the war on drugs started, there was policy that was intended to negatively impact certain citizens," Winfield said. "The reason why I think this is important is because we have operated for 50 years with unjust laws that target certain communities. ... I think it's only fair, because my colleagues aren't speaking for themselves, to say people can come to different places hearing the same information and do it legitimately."

Throughout both the regular and special sessions, Republicans in both chambers dominated the debate, while Democratic leadership allowed extended discussion by the minority party. Other than short statements and answers to Republican questions on bills, Democrats remained quiet to expedite the process.

The state Senate also passed the budget implementer bill, approving a bipartisan state budget that also contains a host of unrelated provisions, by a vote of 20-6 with 10 absent or not voting.

Those include initiatives regarding labor, business, education, health care and other matters. Several aspects of the legislation carry implications for southeastern Connecticut. One of those measures would require schools with Native American mascots or team names to change them in order to qualify for state funding.

The Senate first passed the measure 23-7, but had to vote again on Thursday after the House made changes.

s.spinella@theday.com

What's in the bill

Legalized homegrown marijuana, opportunities for those impacted by drug laws and steep licensing fees for existing dispensaries are included in the bill passed Thursday by the state Senate.

Licensing

The Department of Consumer Protection will be in charge of awarding licenses to retailers and cultivators. Shops can be set up in any city or town in Connecticut, though municipalities have the power to ban the existence of dispensaries or cannabis deliveries in their jurisdiction. The state's medical marijuana dispensaries will have the opportunity to sell recreational cannabis, as well, but for the price of $1 million, or $500,000 if the venture is majority-owned by an equity applicant.

Equity applicants

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. Equity applicants are designated as people who live in specific geographic areas that have been most hard-hit by the war on drugs. Equity applicants must have at minimum 65% ownership and control of relevant companies. Disproportionately impacted areas are defined as census tracts with high drug arrest rates or unemployment rates of more than 10%. Equity applicants are required to have a median income less than triple the state's median income. A "Social Equity Council" will evaluate applications from equity applicants.

Home growing

Just as people are allowed to brew their own beer, the Senate-approved bill includes strengthened provisions for growing marijuana at home. Home growing likely will be allowed for anyone 21 or older starting in July 2023. They'll be allowed to grow at maximum three immature and three mature plants, with a limit of 12 plants per household. Prior to July 2023, growing marijuana at home will be decriminalized, carrying a written warning, fines and the threat of a Class D misdemeanor for certain infractions.

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