Pot legalization is latest issue debated, then tabled

The House of Representatives debated the legalization of recreational marijuana use for 90 minutes late Tuesday afternoon, only to table it afterward.

That debate was just the latest in a string of controversial issues discussed in the House in recent days with the prearranged understanding among both political parties that no vote would be taken.

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Rep. Melissa Ziobron, R-East Haddam

“We’re going to get left behind,” Rep. Melissa Ziobron, R-East Haddam, said, noting that nine states currently have legalized marijuana and several others have debated such action in recent years.

While some have pushed for marijuana legalization — and taxation — as a partial solution to Connecticut’s fiscal woes, Ziobron, the ranking House Republican on the Appropriations Committee, said the potential revenue for state government was not the issue.

Though Colorado and other states that have legalized recreational use have bolstered their economies, “I go back to personal liberty and freedom,” Ziobron said.

The legislature’s nonpartisan Office of Fiscal Analysis estimates Connecticut could raise $61 million per year under this proposal, beginning in the 2018-19 fiscal year.

Others argued that recreational marijuana use already is part of society and it is better that Connecticut regulate it.

Rep. Edwin Vargas, D-Hartford, who spent 35 years as a teacher in the city’s school system, said gangs currently control marijuana sales and use the proceeds to purchase guns, and operate prostitution and loan-sharking rings.

“Legalizing marijuana would knock the floor out of the illegal market,” he said, Legalization “is the first step to de-escalating a war on drugs that we’re not winning.”

Rep. Toni E. Walker, D-New Haven

Rep. Toni E. Walker, D-New Haven, House chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee, said Connecticut’s history with marijuana has been to prosecute drug users rather than to educate the public about cannabis.

The proposed bill would control where the drug could be grown and how it could be sold, she said. “I would rather have children understand what marijuana does and be honest with them about it.”

But Rep. Pam Staneski, R-Milford, who spoke against legalization, said the measure didn’t do enough to explore the harmful aspects of marijuana use and the toll it takes on society.

“Maybe we also need to look at the cost to legalizing this?” she said. “If we’re going to have the discussion, let’s have the holistic discussion, one that dives deeper. … I do challenge this state to be more transparent than just looking at revenue.”

Rep. J.P. Sredzinski, R-Monroe, said he’s read too much testimony from psychiatrists and other medical professionals who’ve established cannabis is addictive, and that a portion of recreational users will become dependent on the drug.

“We’re surrounded by an opioid epidemic. It’s been called a health crisis in our state,” he said, questioning why legislators were debating legalizing another dangerous drug. “I don’t understand it.”

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Rep. William A. Petit Jr., R-Plainville

Rep. William A. Petit Jr., R-Plainville, said there is clear evidence that marijuana can precipitate acute psychotic disorders among some users.

“Those are very disabling illnesses and may create a lifetime of disability for individuals,” he said.

Tuesday’s debate was the latest in a string of House discussions that leaders knew beforehand would not end with a vote.

The same happened with measures involving: tolls, police accountability, paid family leave and a national popular vote to elect the president.

House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, said there is no benefit to these vote-free debates, saying it reflects an inability of majority Democratic leadership to secure enough votes to pass their key bills.

Democrats hold a slim 79-72 edge in the House.

“I think it’s embarrassing,” Klarides said. “If they do not have the votes, they should not call the bill. This notion that they’re going to let people talk and get it off their chests for 90 minutes — that’s what the committee process is for. That’s what the public hearing process is for.

“They want the attention for speaking on the floor, but they don’t have the votes.”

But House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, “I think they are important public policy that representatives of our caucus feel are important and they want the opportunity to share their beliefs. We provide them that avenue even if we’re short on votes.”

The speaker added that on some occasions, bills also must be tabled not because there aren’t sufficient votes, but because the House is “short on time to due to the minority party’s unwillingness to let the debate end.”

The regular 2017 session’s mandatory adjournment deadline is midnight Wednesday.

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