Democratic House leaders announced Wednesday that they would be going into special session and voting on a recreational marijuana bill sometime this month.
The legislative session is ending at midnight Wednesday night.
“My hunch is they can’t get it done by 11:59, but they will get it done within a week,” Gov. Ned Lamont said Wednesday.
House Democrats had expected to get to passing a recreational marijuana bill that the state Senate passed earlier this week but ran out of time. Republican filibustering and daylong debates caused time to dwindle, so Democratic leadership turned to what they said is their bargaining chip: throwing the legislature into special session. The House did eventually pass a bipartisan state budget deal on Tuesday, which the Senate approved Wednesday.
House Speaker Matt Ritter said Republicans “should’ve let us vote.” He has chosen not to call the vote for hotly contested bills, allowing extended commentary from Republicans. He’s said that he views the action as a last resort and doesn’t want to set a precedent. On Wednesday, he said “every item” that the legislature hasn’t gotten to will be open for consideration in the special session.
“There are ramifications for actions that we take. I teach my children that. So that’s the reality,” Ritter said.
Senate President Martin Looney, D-New Haven, criticized House Republicans for forcing a special session.
“We are disappointed the House Republicans are denying a vote on the cannabis bill. I am proud of the candid, straightforward, and purposeful debate the Senate held earlier this week on cannabis and the House should do the same today,” he said. “Our state deserves to know where their elected representatives stand and threats of filibuster and partisan games should not get in the way of one of the most important issues of the year.”
Republican House Leader Vincent Candelora took exception to language, which eventually was removed from the cannabis bill the Senate passed, that would have allowed single vendors to bypass the licensing lottery process. He argued that it tainted the bill and questioned the influence of special interests.
“The Democrats were overly optimistic that we’d be able to clear our plate, and even if that bill wasn’t controversial, I don’t think we’ll have time to get that bill done,” Candelora said Tuesday. “To suggest that we could call it and rush through a ‘yes’ vote given what we’ve seen throughout the process is not realistic.”
The cannabis bill is almost 300 pages. It’s caused much debate between progressive and moderate Democrats and the governor’s office, with Republicans generally opposed. Several aspects of the bill in particular drove debate and are relevant to southeastern Connecticut.
Social equity became a major part of negotiations for the cannabis bill during the session.
Activists, as well as progressive Democrats, were concerned about the definition of “equity applicant” under Lamont’s original bill. 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.
Language in Lamont’s bill at one point stipulated that a private company could qualify as an equity applicant through hiring people that qualify as equity applicants. The bill being voted on this week scraps that language, instead designating social equity applicants for cannabis business licenses 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.
Half of business licenses for recreational cannabis in Connecticut will go to equity applicants under the bill. Equity applicants are in line for additional assistance, funding and training. The state will issue licenses through two lotteries, one of which will be for equity applicants only. Equity applicants will pay half as much to join the lottery as those applying for open licenses. For equity applicants who aren’t chosen in the first lottery, they will be included in the second open lottery.
Tax and where it goes
While many legislators on both sides of the aisle have been hesitant to support recreational cannabis due to health concerns, the consensus is that Connecticut needs the tax revenue, especially with residents crossing state lines to buy weed in Massachusetts, for example.
Cannabis will be taxed at slightly more than 9% — it will bear the 6.35% Connecticut sales tax as well as an excise tax dependent upon the THC potency of purchases. Some of the revenue would go toward areas disproportionately affected by the war on drugs. For such areas, $50 million in bonds for start-up cost will be set aside. Retail sales would begin in May 2022.
Local proponents project the legalization of recreational marijuana could fill some of the empty storefronts and spaces that plague cities like New London, as well as contribute to the city’s jobs market and tax base, too.
Between July 1, 2023, and June 30, 2026, 60% of revenues will go toward a social equity fund. That 60% share will slowly increase in the years following 2026.
Recreational weed is expected to bring in tax revenue in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Up to June 30, 2023, revenue will go toward the state budget general fund. After that, a portion of revenue will go toward addiction prevention and recovery services.
With many people, particularly people of color, carrying criminal records related to cannabis, the bill would expunge certain convictions. In addition, starting July 1 of this year, people can no longer have their parole revoked for using cannabis in some circumstances. And beginning a year later, people can file petitions to have their criminal records erased for certain cannabis-related charges.
Come 2023, people will have convictions between 2000 and 2015 expunged for possession less than 4 ounces of marijuana. The bill bans landlords and colleges/universities from taking actions against tenants and students for marijuana-related issues.
Local legislators such as state Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, and state Rep. Joe de la Cruz, D-Groton, have raised concerns about the effect legalizing recreational marijuana would have on military contractors such as Electric Boat. But supporters of the legislation, including the governor, have said a state legalizing recreational cannabis doesn’t override federal laws regarding defense industry companies. As is, employers can’t act against an employee for a positive drug test, unless such practices threaten federal funding.
Grow your own
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.
Ahead of 2023, growing marijuana at home will be decriminalized, carrying a written warning, fines and the threat of a Class D misdemeanor for certain infractions. Activists fought hard for home growing, a pillar of their support for recreational cannabis. They argued that any bill without robust home-growing measures would be counterintuitive to the goal of opening up recreational marijuana to not only the wealthy, but to everyday people.
Municipalities will be afforded certain powers under the bill, but it does not allow for host community agreements. Still, towns can prohibit cannabis delivery and businesses within town lines. Towns also will be able to regulate businesses’ signage and hours if allowed within the town. The bill sets a limit of one retailer and one retail grower per 25,000 residents, a limit that could be altered in 2024.
Though there won’t be host agreements, towns can charge at most $50,000 in the first 30 days after a business opens to offset municipal public safety costs. The bill provides for there to be town wide referendums regarding selling cannabis within the town if voters provide a petition that must reach a specific threshold.