Marijuana legalization advocates see Connecticut law as national model

A coalition advocating legalization of marijuana nationwide predicted Tuesday that Connecticut's new statute allowing palliative use of the drug will become a national model that will help achieve its goal.

"Medical marijuana is something we really need to look hard at from a national perspective," said Thomas Leto, president of the Washington, D.C.-based U.S. Medical Marijuana Chamber of Commerce during a press conference on the Capitol's north steps. The measure Connecticut lawmakers enacted last May "shows we are still moving forward," he said.

Leto, who said his group represents about 560 businesses and roughly 10,000 individuals, cited a 2009 commentary by Fraser Institute economist Stephen T. Easton, who estimated total national spending on marijuana ranges from $45 billion to $110 billion per year.

Were all those funds exchanged legally, and subjected to taxation by the states and federal government, "the economic benefits are astounding," Leto said. And though legal marijuana sales could be more than a year off due to complications in implementing the new law, "I think you're going to open up seven or eight new industries."

As more states legalize palliative use alone, he said, demand grows for various goods and services including hydroponics and other products to help cultivate the drug; pipes, vaporizers, rolling papers and other goods connected with use of the drug; and medical and legal services.

Though Connecticut's law took effect on Monday, Leto acknowledged it could be a year before the drug cultivation and dispensing systems are up and running. The statute calls for the Department of Consumer Protection to develop regulations to oversee all processes.

And while Leto said that potential economic activity has attracted some disreputable cultivators and dispensers in other states, he is optimistic about how Connecticut will regulate its system, and particularly producers of marijuana.

The statute sets a limit of no more than 10 marijuana producers at one time. It also sets a $25,000 non-refundable application fee for a license and requires all applicants to show a theft-control plan.

"I think Connecticut is clearly going to be [a] model," added Erik Williams, director of the Connecticut chapter of NORMAL, the National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws. "We're doing this right."

A resident of California, where palliative marijuana use is legal, Leto said he relies on the drug to relieve pain caused by a ruptured disc in his neck and related spinal damage.

"I've found that medical marijuana helps me tremendously," he said, adding that it spares him from the opiate-based pain killers he must use when he travels to states where palliative marijuana use isn't allowed. The use of opiate-based medications also means unpleasant side effects such as sluggishness and withdrawal symptoms, he added.

But Connecticut House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero, R-Norwalk, one of the legislature's most vocal opponents of legalizing marijuana use, said the potential for new economic growth and state tax revenue is not a compelling argument.

"Can we use that argument for heroin?" Cafero said.

Connecticut and many other states defend rapidly escalating cigarette taxes on grounds that they discourage tobacco use and promote public health, he said, and not that they grow the state's economy.

The Norwalk lawmaker also rejected Leto's argument that marijuana is a less dangerous or harmful drug than legal alternatives such as tobacco or liquor.

"I've seen hundreds and hundreds of lives ruined by the use of marijuana," said Cafero, an expulsion officer for the last 22 years in the Norwalk school system. Young teens who started using the drug infrequently all too often developed use habits that grew to three times daily, leading them to drop out of high school, he said.

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