CTPharma staff members trim the dried marijuana flower. Yehyun Kim / ctmirror.org
CTPharma staff members trim the dried marijuana flower. Yehyun Kim / ctmirror.org

In defending its vision for how Connecticut should establish a recreational marijuana market, the administration of Gov. Ned Lamont asserted common ground Friday with some of the proposal’s harshest critics, the advocates who insist on social equity measures to redress unequal enforcement of criminal pot laws.

“What cannabis and the war on drugs has done to our communities is unconscionable,” said Paul Mounds, the governor’s chief of staff. “And we have to take steps to not only right those wrongs but take steps to make sure that individuals are not only among the marketplace, but are a part of the marketplace.”

Senate Bill 888, proposed by the governor, would create an Equity Commission and establish entry-level licenses for small-scale growers of cannabis, a business that takes massive amounts of capital to establish and operate at scale in the Northeast, where the growing is done indoors.

But the critics, who include urban and progressive lawmakers whose votes are crucial to passage of the governor’s bill, complain that the social equity provisions are insufficient.

The administration also faces skeptics among conservatives who questioned the wisdom of legalizing in state law what remains a controlled substance in federal law. While Lamont insists that the national legalization trend inevitably will lead to the repeal of cannabis prohibition, other opponents repeated arguments that legalization would be a threat to public health and safety.

Mounds was first in a parade of administration officials who testified and answered questions from lawmakers over the first five hours of a public hearing by the Judiciary Committee, a presentation that emphasized that the bill was evolving.

“This is not a final bill,” Mounds said. To the critics of the social equity language, he said, “We want you at the table.”

More than 130 people signed up to speak on the bill, which would legalize, tax and decriminalize marijuana — to a certain degree. Home-growing and sales outside the tightly regulated structure proposed by Lamont would remain illegal.

“SB 888 fails to achieve the bare minimum of equity goals in that it does not decriminalize most cannabis crimes by its glaring omission of the legalization of home cultivation,” Jason Ortiz, a legalization advocate, said in written testimony. “No longer risking arrest for growing a plant in your home must be at the center of what legalization is. If we can still go to prison for growing it, it’s not truly legal.”

Connecticut decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana in 2015, but 6,600 people were arrested or given a ticket for marijuana possession in 2020 — about 10% of the business in the criminal courts, said Michael P. Lawlor, the former legislator and criminal justice adviser to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.

“It’s important to keep in mind, if you take that out of the flow of business in our criminal courts, you allow prosecutors and judges and police to focus on the higher-risk violent offenders,” Lawlor said Wednesday at a roundtable talk organized by Lamont in anticipation of the hearing Friday.

Few of the people arrested or cited for cannabis wind up serving jail time solely for possession. But those criminal records follow people after their initial fine or arrest, potentially affecting their ability to land a job or secure housing.

“It is important now for us to address the wrongs involved in the war on drugs and the impact that criminal convictions and enforcement have had on our state, specifically on communities of color,” said Marc Pelka, the governor’s undersecretary for criminal justice policy and planning.

Pelka said anyone with a conviction for marijuana possession of four ounces or less from October 2015 could petition the court for erasure of their records. Those with convictions on possession prior to 2015 would automatically have their records cleared, using technology that was a cornerstone of Lamont’s “Clean Slate” bill last year. Pelka said the governor has included $2 million in the IT Capital Investment Program bond authorization to address the costs at the implementing state agencies.

Convictions on crimes involving the sale of cannabis would not be erased.

The measure would make it legal for people age 21 or older to possess 1.5 ounces of marijuana, a limit set to allow the prosecution of black-market sales.

“Possession of between 1.5 and 2.5 ounces is an infraction with increasing financial penalties for second violations, and possession above 2.5 ounces is an infraction and then a misdemeanor for second subsequent offenses,” Pelka said.

The ACLU of Connecticut faulted the bill for what it deemed “the continuing criminalization of cannabis.” The group warned that the measure criminalized young people for over-possession and attempting to purchase marijuana for a second time.

“Young people should not be subject to a lifetime of collateral consequences for youthful mistakes better addressed through non-criminal pathways,” said Kelly McConney Moore, the ACLU CT’s interim senior policy counsel.

Moore took issue with the legal possession limit, noting that Massachusetts allows for possession of up to 10 ounces. She also noted that the bill includes language that could lead to imprisonment for up to a year if a person is criminally negligent and allows a minor to possess cannabis.

“Senate Bill 888 recognizes that cannabis enforcement has disproportionately harmed some groups,” Moore said. “If Connecticut does not want to repeat the mistakes of its past, it should not apply criminal penalties to simple possession of any type of cannabis in any amount by any person.”

Others took issue with the expungement aspect of the bill. Michael Oretade, from Black Lives Matter 860, said there should be expungements for people who sold small amounts of cannabis.

“If impoverished communities were supported properly, then individuals wouldn’t have to resort to selling cannabis in the first place,” said Oretade.

Oretade said the governor’s bill criminalizes youth and neither supports indigenous communities or mentions protections for people in public housing.

“It’s ignoring the root of the problems in the communities of color and giving crumbs to us and calling it equity,” Oretade said. “I’m here to say we want the whole damn cake.”

The Lamont administration defended its proposed bill as thorough and well-constructed, while calling its social equity provisions a framework for further talks, not the final word.

The administration’s approach to equity 

Social equity is a catch-all for policies aimed at redressing the disparate impact of criminal enforcement of marijuana laws, including the erasure of possession-arrest records, who gets to participate in the new business, and how the state should use tax revenues from the sale of cannabis.

Lamont is the first Connecticut governor to strongly push for the legalization of adult recreational marijuana sales and use, but even allies on legalization complain his bill fails to adequately redress harms caused by the unequal enforcement of pot laws.

His bill broadly addressed social equity but also defers many questions to an Equity Commission that could make recommendations after the completion of a study and before the start date in 2022.

That 11-member commission will include people with careers in social justice, civil rights or economic development and who have experience in “providing access to capital to minorities.” Two people will also be appointed who are from communities disproportionately harmed by the war on drugs. Others will be appointed by the legislative Black and Puerto Rican Caucus and state agencies.

A failure to resolve the social equity concerns would be fatal to the chances of passage in 2021, said Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, the co-chair of the Judiciary Committee.

“I don’t have a problem with that commission,” Winfield said before the hearing. “But that’s all that the equity piece really is. Clearly, that is not the bill we’re doing. If that’s the bill we’re doing, then I’m going to work to end that bill.”

Jonathan Harris, the senior Lamont adviser who convened a working group with social equity advocates over the months before the bill was filed, said the governor’s 163-page proposal would create a regulatory and tax structure, set the terms for the automatic erasure of criminal records for possession and begin the detailed work of defining equity.

“The governor is not ignoring this discussion group, not ignoring social equity. We want to continue that discussion,” Harris told the lawmakers.

Harris said House Bill 6377, a 24-page bill filed by the co-chairs of the Labor and Public Employees Committee, goes into more detail on social equity and the rights of cannabis workers to organize. It is not a competing bill, he said.

“They’re actually complementary,” Harris said. “They were forged under different time frames with different responsibilities.”

The social-equity working group took no formal action on final recommendations, but a summary authorized by Ortiz of the Minority Cannabis Business Association demanded that half all cannabis licenses — everything from production to sales is licensed — be “social equity licenses.”

He defined them as businesses with at least 67% ownership by people who met at least two of the following criteria: a cannabis-related arrest; a family member with a cannabis arrest; an annual income of no more than 150% of the median wage; and being from communities most harmed by criminal cannabis laws.

DeVaugn Ward, a member of the working group, said before the hearing he hopes the message to the governor would be pointed but constructive.

“Thank you for taking on this issue. And thank you for saying you’ve committed to getting on this issue this year,” he said. “Your bill can be better in these ways. And hopefully, we can move forward after Friday to try to get some of those things in the bill to make it make it a stronger bill and get it passed.”

Kelan is a Report For America Corps Member who covers the intersection of mental health and criminal justice for CT Mirror. Before joining CT Mirror, Kelan was a staff writer for City Weekly, an alt weekly in Salt Lake City, Utah, and a courts reporter for The Bryan-College Station Eagle, in Texas. He is originally from Philadelphia.

Mark is the Capitol Bureau Chief and a co-founder of CT Mirror. He is a frequent contributor to WNPR, a former state politics writer for The Hartford Courant and Journal Inquirer, and contributor for The New York Times.

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