The often debated question of whether to legalize marijuana use for palliative purposes took a different twist Friday as the legislature’s tax-writing panel rejected an argument that this would be a drain on the state’s coffers.

The Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee voted 36-15 to adopt the bill, which now heads to the House of Representatives.

The tax panel also rejected several amendments from Sen. Toni Boucher, R-Wilton, a longtime opponent of marijuana legalization, who argued that state officials have badly underestimated the costs behind the measure.

“There are going to be losses,” Boucher said. “That is probably something we can be assured of.”

The legislature’s nonpartisan Office of Fiscal Analysis concluded that the bill would be cost-neutral.

The state would have to spend nearly $209,000 next fiscal year largely to cover enforcement and administrative staff. The state would license parties to produce and distribute marijuana for medicinal purposes.

But legislative analysts said these costs largely would be offset by revenues from two fees.

Those seeking to grow marijuana would need to obtain a license from the state Department of Consumer Protection. Licenses would be issued for five years and would cost $25,000.

Patients looking to use the drug also would need to register with the department at an annual charge of $25.

After studying comparable systems in Vermont and Rhode Island, legislative analysts concluded this would raise $267,500 next fiscal year.

Marijuana only would be made available to patients diagnosed by a licensed physician with a debilitating disease, such as cancer, AIDS or Parkinson’s Disease.

Patients could use the drug only during a period of time covered on a prescription issued by their physician, and could obtain marijuana only from pharmacists registered with the state to dispense the drug. The Consumer Protection Department would be charged with setting fees for the drug.

The bill also specifies that authorized patients could not use marijuana for medicinal purposes at work, at school, in public places, in moving vehicles, or in front of children.

Boucher argued that “the business of pot-growing is a very lucrative business,” and that producers of the plant stand to make huge profits in a state where medicinal use is legal.

Boucher offered an amendment to raise the applications fee for producers of marijuana to $50,000. It was rejected by the Democratic-controlled committee in votes largely along party lines.

State officials also have underestimated the potential legal costs state and local governments could face if the bill is enacted, Boucher said.

Several states with similar laws already have run into legal problems with the U.S. Department of Justice for failing to adequately enforce federal laws governing controlled substances, she said.

And what type of liability issues will state and local governments face, Boucher asked, should a public employee, while legally under the influence of marijuana, crashes a vehicle or causes some other type of accident?

Though no members of the committee debated the issue with Boucher during Friday’s meeting, the House chairwoman of the panel, Guilford Democrat Patricia Widlitz, said she and most other supporters of the measure never intended for this proposal to pose a new net cost to the state.

“It has always been the intention of the Finance Committee to keep it cost-neutral,” she said, adding that if the bill is enacted, and new costs are discovered, she expects they would be addressed. “I would think any future legislatures would want to keep this cost-neutral.”

Keith has spent most of his 31 years as a reporter specializing in state government finances, analyzing such topics as income tax equity, waste in government and the complex funding systems behind Connecticut’s transportation and social services networks. He has been the state finances reporter at CT Mirror since it launched in 2010. Prior to joining CT Mirror Keith was State Capitol bureau chief for The Journal Inquirer of Manchester, a reporter for the Day of New London, and a former contributing writer to The New York Times. Keith is a graduate of and a former journalism instructor at the University of Connecticut.

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