Gov. Ned Lamont is proposing legislation today that would permit the sale and possession of recreational marijuana in Connecticut in May 2022, relying on the existing infrastructure of medical cannabis producers and dispensaries for a fast start while also offering opportunity to newcomers.
A 10-page summary of the legislation obtained by CT Mirror hints at the complexities awaiting the Lamont administration as it tries to make Connecticut only the third state to legalize recreational cannabis without the political cover of a referendum.
The bill addresses the broad topic of social equity — who should benefit from the new business, including communities disproportionately impacted by criminal marijuana laws — but it also defers many questions to an Equity Commission that could make recommendations before the start date in 2022.
One early test will be the extent to which the bill meets the expectations of community stakeholders who have been in talks with the administration over social equity, which covers everything from erasing criminal records to licensing opportunities.
“I’m comfortable that the legislation that will be introduced by the governor will reflect most of my concerns,” said DeVaughn Ward, senior legislative counsel to the Marijuana Policy Project and a participant in the equity talks.
He said he is less certain about what will happen when the bill is reviewed by at least three legislative committees with jurisdiction over criminal law, taxation and licensing issues.
One of the other participants, the Rev. Tommie Jackson of Stamford, credited the governor’s senior adviser, Jonathan Harris, with “keeping us focused, and making us realistic about what can and what cannot happen, what may or may not happen.”
Harris, who led the talks, declined to comment.
The ad hoc social equity group recommended that some licensing preference be given to individuals affected by cannabis laws, though it did not offer a comprehensive definition of social equity, instead deferring that to the commission and a disparity study it would oversee.
The governor’s bill reflected the group’s desire to create licenses for entry-level portions of the business that would require relatively little capital: micro-cultivator, food and beverage manufacturer, and delivery. Those licenses could be limited to so-called social equity applicants.
It was unclear if the bill would include a recommendation that the equity applicants meet two of four conditions: An arrest for a cannabis crime; an immediate family member with a cannabis arrest; an average income not more than 150% of median wage; or is part of a group otherwise disproportionately harmed by cannabis laws, as determined by the equity study.
The medical marijuana industry currently has four growers and 18 dispensaries. The growers could expand to the recreational business after paying a significant licensing fee to the state, and the dispensaries could seek a recreational license.
Michael Fedele, the former state lawmaker and lieutenant governor, is now an investor and chairman of the board at CTPharma, one of the four medical growers. He and others said passage of a legalization bill will require the balancing of many interests.
“And the problem you have is if you try to serve too many constituencies to get the bill passed, you know the old saying that the bill becomes a Christmas tree — too many ornaments,” Fedele said.
Aside from issues of who can participate is who will benefit from the revenue the business will generate for the state. Lamont’s bill anticipates excise taxes on cultivation, a municipal sales tax at retail, and the state sales tax at retail and delivery.
One source familiar with the bill said the various taxes would produce an effective tax of about 20%. The 3% municipal tax would be kept by the communities in which they are collected, providing an incentive to allow retail sales.
Sales and use would be limited to persons at least 21 years of age.
Municipalities have no control over the location of medical dispensaries, but the retail sale of recreational cannabis would be subject to local zoning rules, including signage.
As a further sweetener to cities and towns, half of the excise tax revenue would go to municipal aid and social equity, beginning in the 2024 fiscal year.
Cities and towns would have the authority to regulate or prohibit the consumption of cannabis in any public space. Consumption while driving would be prohibited, as would smoking of cannabis by the passenger of a motor vehicle.
All employers would be allowed to maintain drug-free workplaces and to take employment action against an employee who is impaired at work. Under most circumstances, however, people could not be penalized for medical testing that shows past cannabis use.
Employers with federal contracts or that have safety-critical positions like commercial drivers, construction workers, and medical professionals still could ban the use of cannabis in off hours and test for evidence of its use.
The measure would create an automated system for the erasure of criminal records for possession of four ounces or less of cannabis and other non-narcotic, non-hallucinogenic controlled substances.