After years of failed attempts to legalize marijuana in Connecticut, top Democratic lawmakers announced on Tuesday that if the legislature again rejects a cannabis reform bill in the coming session, they’ll take the issue directly to state voters via a ballot referendum.
“I think it’ll be a very, very close vote in the House,” House Speaker-designate Matt Ritter (D) said at a press conference outside a medical marijuana dispensary. “But if we do not have the votes—and I’m not raising the white flag—I want to be very clear: We will put something on the board to put to the voters of the state of Connecticut to amend the state constitution to legalize marijuana.”
In a separate appearance last week, Ritter put 50–50 odds on cannabis legalization passing the state legislature in 2021 and earlier this month said the reform is “inevitable” in the state at some point. If it doesn’t have enough lawmaker support to pass next year, he said on Tuesday, voters could decide legalization through a proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot as soon as 2022.
Efforts to legalize adult-use cannabis through Connecticut’s legislature over the past five years have repeatedly failed. During that time, however, a number of nearby states—including Maine, Vermont, New Jersey and neighboring Massachusetts—have passed legalization measures of their own. Other neighbors, including New York and Rhode Island, are currently weighing the issue. The state’s only other border is coastline.
At Tuesday’s press conference, lawmakers argued that the fact that Connecticut residents can now legally buy marijuana next door in Massachusetts—and soon elsewhere—has changed the political equation.
“Folks literally take something called a car,” Ritter quipped, “and they drive in their car and they buy it.”
Moreover, Connecticut in 2011 decriminalized the possession of small amounts of cannabis, Ritter noted. “So not only are they going across the border, but they’re coming back to their homes and using it safely.” (However common, it remains illegal to transport marijuana across state lines.)
Also at Tuesday’s press conference, held outside state-licensed medical marijuana producer CT Pharma, was Rep. Michael D’Agostino (D), co-chair of the House General Law Committee.
“The foundation exists for adult-use cannabis in Connecticut,” D’Agostino said, alluding to the facility behind him. “The production facilities exist. The distribution facilities exist. The regulatory structure exists. A bill is drafted from last session. We are ready to go.”
Passage through the state legislature would be the speedier of the two options. “If the legislature shows the will to pass this this year,” D’Agostino said, “we can be up and running by the end of next year. And from there, it will be easy to bolt onto that opportunities for everyone.”
A legislative panel in March heard a legalization proposal but declined to vote on the bill. That measure would likely serve as the model for next session’s legislation.
Legalization through a voter-approved referendum, the lawmakers noted, would follow a considerably longer path. Qualifying a proposed amendment for the following election requires passing a joint resolution with a three-quarters majority vote in both the Senate and the House. Otherwise, a simple majority of lawmakers put an amendment on the ballot if they approve it in two separate legislative sessions.
That would likely mean the question wouldn’t appear before voters until “2022 or, worst-case, 2024,” Ritter said.
“If we had only done this two years ago,” he added, “we’d only be two years away.”
Clearly, putting the issue on the ballot if there aren’t enough votes to pass a legalization bill itself would require some lawmakers who are opposed to or skeptical about the issue to at least feel comfortable letting voters decide on it. That’s what happened in New Jersey, where the legislature couldn’t find enough support for legalizing cannabis on its own but was able to pass a resolution placing a cannabis referendum on the ballot.
Amid what’s expected to be a busy legislative session in Connecticut, incoming House Majority Leader Jason Rojas (D) said marijuana deserves to be on the calendar even though “this is not the most pressing issue we’re facing as a state.”
“Perhaps it’s the most nagging one,” he said.
November’s election could help seal the deal. Democrats will have bigger majorities than in past years when the 2021 legislative session kicks off, as the Hartford Courant noted, and leaders said Tuesday they’re already reaching out to new members.
“I think we need to have a bill that’s ready from day one so that we can go to our members who are a bit skeptical about this policy,” Rojas said, “so we can arm them with the best information possible, and a vision for it.”
Asked about opposition to the bill, Rojas was frank. “It’s a diverse body of legislators, and there’s a lot of differences of opinion,” he said. “There’s concerns about the impact on youth and the kind of message that it sends to youth. There are some who believe the impact on brain development should be taken into consideration and therefore the age should be 25 for adult use. It’s a complicated issue, like many of the issues that we face in the Capitol.”
Ritter urged Republican lawmakers to see the issue as one of personal liberty. “Where are my libertarian Republican friends? Where are they?” he asked. “If they’re not willing to vote for legalization, are they at least willing to put it to the voters?”
If put on the state ballot, Ritter predicted marijuana legalization would pass overwhelmingly. Nearly two-thirds (63.4 percent) of residents said they “strongly support” or “somewhat support” legalizing adult-use cannabis, according to a poll in March, while 29.5 percent said they “strongly oppose” or “somewhat oppose” it.
Ritter on Tuesday also downplayed the role of state tax revenue in his support for legalization, saying it alone wouldn’t balance the budget. Instead, he said, he’s motivated by having a coherent policy with neighboring states, ensuring products are safe and addressing racial disparities in cannabis policing.
Gov. Ned Lamont (D), who supports legalization, also said this month that the policy change could potentially reduce the spread of COVID-19 by limiting out-of-state trips to buy marijuana.
Revenue from legalization in Connecticut would go toward education as well as an equity fund that would invest in communities disproportionately impacted by the drug war under the draft bill, the lawmakers said Tuesday. Municipalities could tack on additional taxes or fees, or they could vote to keep legal marijuana businesses out of their jurisdictions completely.
Voters across the country on Election Day approved every major drug-reform measure on state ballots, a sweep that’s since spurred action in neighboring states.
In many states where cannabis was on the ballot, legalization got more votes than either Donald Trump’s or Joe Biden’s presidential bids.
Congressman Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) told Marijuana Moment after Election Day that the overwhelming results are also likely to encourage reform at the federal level.