The marijuana law signed Tuesday by Gov. Ned Lamont makes the adult use and possession of small amounts of recreational marijuana legal in Connecticut on July 1, but the administration says that retail sales are not expected until late 2022.
The legislation passed in special session last week leaves significant work for a Social Equity Council about how to define and regulate how a legal marijuana market should become an instrument for addressing racial, social and economic injustice.
“Those communities were hardest hit by the war on drugs — making up for some lost time there,” Lamont said.
The governor and lawmakers have 30 days from passage to make appointments to a council charged with promoting participation in the new industry by people from communities disproportionately harmed by marijuana prohibition and enforcement.
“We’re already starting to look at our appointments,” said House Majority Leader Jason Rojas, D-East Hartford. “I think that’s a high priority for us.”
Lamont signed the bill at a subdued ceremony in the Old Appropriations room of the State Capitol, which had been used during much of the pandemic to deliver daily and then twice-a-week briefings on COVID-19.
“We have been working on this for a long time,” said Lamont, who ran on legalization and proposed bills in the 2020 and 2021 sessions.
Connecticut is the 19th state to legalize recreational marijuana. Adults 21 and older will be able to possess up to 1.5 ounces on their person and 5 ounces in their home or locked car. The new law automatically erases criminal records for possession of up to 4 ounces of marijuana.
Lamont’s predecessor, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, successfully pushed for the decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana in 2011, then legalization of marijuana for prescribed medical use in 2012. But legalization of recreational marijuana had stalled.
“Politics is often a little bit of luck and timing. And the combination of those two things and hard work can lead to good results,” said House Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford. “Well, elections have consequences, and elections lead to results.”
In Malloy’s last two years in office, the Senate was evenly divided, but Democratic gains in 2018 and 2020 led to passage. Only one Republican in each chamber voted for legalization.
The threshold question of whether to legalize possession was a simple one.
More complex were the questions of social justice and equity, including how Connecticut could ease access to the new business by residents of communities disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs.
The law gives the new council scant time to make its first decisions. Beginning August 1, the council must identify census tracts in the state that are disproportionately impacted and publish a list of these tracts on the council’s website.
Half of all licenses for the cultivation, packaging, transportation and marketing of recreational marijuana will be reserved for social equity applicants from those census tracts.
Before Labor Day, the council is expected to establish the criteria for a study of the historical and current consequences of marijuana prohibition to make recommendations for establishing an equitable adult-use marijuana industry.
Each licensed producer will be required to contribute $500,000 to the council for a program to help social equity applicants open micro-cultivator establishments.
By January 1, the council must use the results of the study to recommend legislation for implementing social equity policies.
Homegrown marijuana will be limited this year to holders of medical marijuana cards, who can grow up to six plants beginning October 1. Adults age 21 and older will be permitted the same number of plants beginning July 2, 2023. Plants must be grown indoors.
Taxes on retail sales will include a 3% municipal sales tax directed to the town or city where the retail sale occurred, plus the 6.35% state sales tax and a tax based on the THC content of the product.
Lamont’s office said the tax rate will be lower than in New York and comparable to Massachusetts.
Municipalities can ban retail sales through zoning and regulate public use, much as they presently can with the smoking of tobacco.
“That is their right, where they need to be accountable to the voters and to their communities,” Rojas said.
The bill explicitly bans smoking marijuana in state parks and on state waterways, and it expands smoking prohibitions of all kinds by prohibiting smoking at workplaces, including within 25 feet of an entrance. It also bars hotels from offering smoking rooms.
But every community with a population of 50,000 or more must designate at least one public space for canabis consumption.
“The idea is that you didn’t want to turn, say, the New Haven Green into just a smoking free-for-all,” said Rep. Michael D’Agostino, D-Hamden. “So you’ll have a dedicated area for public consumption.”
Connecticut currently has four producers of medical marijuana, plus 18 retail dispensaries.
Lamont, who went to college in the 1970s, said marijuana laws enforced unevenly in his time, falling most heavily on communities of color and creating a disrespect for the law.
“I think now we have a law people can believe,” Lamont said. “And I think that’s a good thing.”