The Connecticut state Senate voted to legalize the use of cannabis by adults for recreational purposes last week and today Gov. Ned Lamont (D) signed the bill into law. The bill, which legalized cannabis for anyone over the age of 21, will allow for sales to begin starting in May 2022.

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A very partisan journey

Despite all Republican state senators and four Democrats all opposing the bill and nine senators missing the vote entirely, the law still passed through on a 16-11 final tally. It passed on the 50-year anniversary of President Richard Nixon declaring the War on Drugs. “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,” said Governor Ned Lamont (D) in a statement. Senate Bill 1201 would allow possession of up to 1.5 ounces of marijuana by anyone 21 and older, starting July 1st. Commercial sales could start up as soon as May of 2022. Marijuana would be taxed at 6.35%, which is the state’s general sales tax, plus an extra excise tax depending on THC content. At the start, 60% of that money money will go toward paying for community reinvestment in areas most impacted by the War on Drugs; 25% would go drug addiction prevention and recovery services; 15% of the money raised going to the state’s General Fund. Individual municipalities can also choose to add a 3% tax to pay for community reinvestment projects. Those percentages change over time, with the amount of money dedicated to the Social Equity and Innovation Fund eventually ramping up to 75%. The bill also means that law enforcement officers would not be allowed to use the smell or suspected possession of marijuana as a reason for a search, and employers could not discriminate against cannabis users. Starting July 1st of next year, people can petition to have their previous cannabis-related possession and paraphernalia charges to be expunged. Most simple possession cases would be automatically expunged starting in 2023. Governor Lamont has shown some major excitement over the finalization of the bill. When asked whether he might partake in some cannabis himself, he replied, “Time will tell.” His main focus, though, seems to be squarely on social equity. “The states surrounding us already, or soon will, have legal adult-use markets. By allowing adults to possess cannabis, regulating its sale and content, training police officers in the latest techniques of detecting and preventing impaired driving, and expunging the criminal records of people with certain cannabis crimes, we’re not only effectively modernizing our laws and addressing inequities, we’re keeping Connecticut economically competitive with our neighboring states,” the Governor added.

Lamont's fight for social equity

That was the second time those senators have seen a form of the bill. They’d originally made changes that sent things back to the House floor for a heated debate. Governor Lamont had been pushing for legal marijuana for some time, but threatened a veto because of issues he took with the rules for access to social equity programs. The bill mandates that half of all business licenses would go to social equity applicants. The issue was[ME1] , an amendment to the bill would treat people from underprivileged and over-policed neighborhoods the same way as people who had marijuana convictions but had not been discriminated against on a larger scale. With the amendments, a rich and privileged family that had a kid arrested for marijuana possession would be just as eligible for a social equity license as someone from a community that had suffered from unfair policing practices.  The Governor felt communities that had been discriminated against throughout history and had drug laws disproportionately applied should be treated differently, with more focus on remedying those impacts. “…This proposal opens the floodgates for tens of thousands of previously ineligible applicants to enter the adult-use cannabis industry. This last-minute amendment creates equity in name only by allowing these individuals expedited opportunity to obtain access to the marketplace. Governor Lamont has said from the beginning that this legislation must allow those most impacted by the war on drugs to have a fair shot in the process to enter into this new industry. This measure as amended fails to achieve the goals and needs of our state when it comes to equity,” Governor Lamont’s Chief of Staff said in a statement. The bill then changed again. Now, it specifies that a social equity applicant must have an average household income of less than 300% the state’s median household income, and must be a resident of a “disproportionately impacted area” for at least nine years of their childhood and at least half of the past decade leading up to the application. The bill also explains that a disproportionately impacted area must have either an unemployment rate greater than 10% or a “historical conviction rate for drug-related offenses greater than one-tenth.” SB 1201 also states that legislators, elected officials, anyone in a career that involves the regulation of cannabis, and anyone on the social equity board will not be allowed to apply for licenses in the cannabis industry until they’ve been out of government work for 2 years or longer. Democratic Senator Gary Winfield advocated for the bill, saying it would address drug policies throughout the state’s history that have disproportionately harmed communities of color. “I can’t tell you the number of people questioning why I brought up race in the discussion on cannabis legalization. In a conversation connected to the war on drugs we aren’t going to discuss race?! I’m just telling you - I’m not here for it,” Senator Winfield wrote on Twitter. “Believe what you will just don’t come at me acting like history isn’t what it is and expect a happy response. You will find something wholly different here.” Ultimately, the House passed the revised bill with a 14-representative margin at 76-62. There are still penalties for some things. Adults who are not yet 21 who are caught with small amounts of marijuana could be given a $50 ticket for a first violation and a $150 fine or mandatory community service for violations after that. And possession of over 1.5 ounces is still banned. Selling cannabis to minors can result in a misdemeanor charge, a year in prison, and a $2,000 fine. Overall though, the Governor hopes things will be much more lax. “This measure is comprehensive, protects our children and the most vulnerable in our communities, and will be viewed as a national model for regulating the adult-use cannabis marketplace.”

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