Connecticut marijuana compromised by another police bill

Progressive Penance: Marijuana Legalization in Conn. Complicated by Equity

Around this time last summer, Connecticut lawmakers were called into a special session during the dead heat of summer to pass, among other measures, a police accountability bill. That rare session in late July resulted in the Nutmeg State becoming the first in the nation to remove qualified immunity for police officers.

This summer the focus in Hartford — a state capital under the jurisdiction of a local police force with a history of corruption, which recently disciplined five officers for brutalizing a suspect — is on the other side of the coin: State lawmakers are now putting vacations on hold to debate the legalization of marijuana — the federally forbidden plant that’s given license to officers statewide to arrest non-whites at disparate rates in comparison to their counterparts.

At the state Capitol in Hartford, Conn., lawmakers and advocates alike await a likely special session this Wednesday, June 16. Photo by Gabriel Pietrorazio

Connecticut’s passion for cannabis picked up steam after New York — its neighbor to the west and south where many residents commute to make a living — recently legalized recreational marijuana, joining Massachusetts — its neighbor to the north where many residents vacation — and other states throughout the Northeast, but the measure’s passage remains far from certain, even if proponents have been seemingly optimistic lately. 

In the final few days of the Connecticut General Assembly’s regular session, a slim majority of state senators — 19 in favor, 17 opposed — passed Senate Bill 1118, which would legalize cannabis statewide for adults ages 21 and older by July 1. There’s a problem, though: that bill officially expired before being voted on in time by the Connecticut House of Representatives. 

Go directly to Jail. Do not pass GO, do not collect $200

Now the entire process needs to start all over — securing majority votes in the House and Senate, once again, before lawmakers recast their final roll calls — this time during the highly-anticipated special session, which is set to start this Wednesday, June 16.

Advocates are still anxious. DeVaughn Ward is senior legislative counsel at the Marijuana Policy Project, where he’s the lead attorney charged with tracking and advocating for efforts to legalize, regulate and tax marijuana in the tri-state area of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.

Even though the measure already survived the Senate once, it still remains uncertain whether supporters can secure enough support to pass it a second-time — like lightning striking twice at the state Capitol.

“The downside for us cannabis reform advocates in the state is that the bill now has to make it back through the Senate as well as the House,” Ward told The News Station.

Just last year, Ward says advocates were “trying to push the governor to include at least some modest [provision] or expansion of decriminalization in the police accountability bill.”  

At the time, they were told it wasn’t “politically feasible” to accomplish.

However, the record of the city’s own police department might be considered equally flawed. The recent disciplining of five Hartford police officers is only the latest controversy that tops a laundry list of scandals stemming from the Hartford Police Department — a local law enforcement agency that’s supposed to safeguard the state’s capital.

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Now, Ward believes House Majority Leader Jason Rojas, a Democrat, “wouldn’t have called this special session unless he was confident the votes were there” not only in the House but in the Senate as well.

It’s being considered as another step toward equality — one championed in part by a majority contingent of the Black Puerto Rican Caucus (or BPRC), one of the largest caucuses in the entire state, comprising 35 legislators between the two chambers.

Democratic state Rep. Geraldo Reyes Jr., chair of the BPRC, believes “this whole bill was based on equity.” 

Last summer, in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis, their caucus forged a path forward, pressing their colleagues to pass the contentious police accountability bill after a nearly eight-hour debate — filled with nail-biting moments where key provisions on police immunity were almost stripped out — ran into the following day before finally being passed around 9 a.m. Truthfully, the mettle of elected officials from both sides of the aisle were tested — with lawmakers learning plenty of lessons from the ensuing episode of political theater. 

With equality measures — like a proposal to give half of new cannabis licenses to people living within some communities hit hardest by the ‘war on drugs’ — already included in the cannabis measure, Reyes is confident of its chances, noting it’s “the only way it should pass.”

Last year, a few months after the murder of George Floyd, pro-police protesters stormed the Capitol grounds in Hartford as a police accountability bill was being considered by the legislature during a marathon special session in July. Photo by Gabriel Pietrorazio

“Although we didn’t have a George Floyd moment, we certainly continued off that legacy, and we hit the road running right from day one,” Reyes told The News Station.

Since then, the BPRC has spotlighted a host of crucial pieces of legislation central to the caucus’ mission in Connecticut, all of which passed this year: a ‘clean slate’ bill (which expunges misdemeanors and some felonies from people’s records), a measure reducing the use of solitary confinement and legislation to make prison phone calls free — all in the name of social justice and equity. 

“We’re extremely proud of all the BPRC members,” Reyes said. “We have led the fight and championed the really transformational legislation in this particular legislative body.”

Conn. Marijuana Bill Hailed as One of Best Nationwide

And the cannabis measure is no exception, either.

“All of that is built on the back of everything that happened last year, highlighting injustices, imbalances and inequitable situations that most communities have been harmed by the war on drugs,” the BPRC chair later added.

Some other notable elements of the marijuana legislation include preventing police from effectuating searches based on the suspected odor of cannabis and even automatically expunging convictions stemming from the sale and possession of up to four ounces of marijuana beginning in 2023.

Legalizing marijuana would start almost immediately, by July 1, allowing adults age 21 and older to possess 1.5 ounces of cannabis — even keeping up to five ounces locked inside a glove box, vehicle trunk or private residence.

Touting it as a ‘state-of-the-deal’ piece of legislation, Ward insists it “incorporates a lot of the best practices we’ve liked from other states,” resulting in a fairly comprehensive bill — one that the Marijuana Policy Project is admittedly “pretty proud” of.

In particular, officially legalizing cannabis statewide “takes a huge tool off the table” from police officers who “might have bad intentions,” especially in regards to marginalized communities.

“The bill does dovetail with some of those police accountability measures that were passed last year, and it stops increased, over-policing of communities of color,” Ward said. “It stops and curtails unnecessary police interaction for what we believe is a victimless crime.”

Yet Connecticut is slow about coming to terms on cannabis legalization in comparison to neighboring states throughout the Northeast, including Massachusetts, Maine, New Jersey and New York.

After lawmakers decriminalized cannabis in 2011, legalizing recreational marijuana in Connecticut proved harder than expected — it’s now been 10 years in the making, and it’s still on the ropes.

“What I’ve learned from doing it in New Jersey and New York is where there’s a will, there’s a way,” Ward mentioned. “It may take a couple pauses and starts, but eventually it gets there. And that’s what you’re seeing play out here in Connecticut.”

Earlier this winter, the Empire State finally struck a deal in Albany to legalize recreational cannabis amid the sinking, scandal-ridden administration of Gov. Andrew Cuomo. The measure was signed into law back in late March. 

Reyes believes New York lawmakers “actually created a path for Connecticut to fastly follow.” He says Connecticut Democrats are now ready to follow their neighbor’s lead this Wednesday — nearly three-months later.

From a policy perspective, Ward witnessed Connecticut “take a wait and see approach” when it comes to crafting the bill itself — one that’ll benefit state residents after consulting other state legislators from across the nation to create “some of the most comprehensive and well thought-out [regulations] in the country.”

State Rep. Geraldo Reyes Jr., a Democrat and Chair of the Black Puerto Rican Caucus, believes legalizing cannabis in Connecticut is positive for equity-related efforts — particularly for under-served, marginalized communities. Photo by Gabriel Pietrorazio

Recently, Democratic state Reps. Rojas, Candeloria and Robyn Porter were “picked” to represent the BPRC — being “sent to the table” for conversations with associates from Colorado and Illinois.

“Those are the three that control the narrative and much of the language, if you will. And that’s how it got done,” Reyes explained.

Admittedly, Reyes suggests “the cannabis bill will not pass without support from the BPRC,” however it “doesn’t mean that every member is in favor” even though “the majority of them are.”

Although not all of their members are onboard when it comes to backing legal cannabis, their caucus is still “driving the equitable piece” while “holding the wheel on that particular bill.”

Aside from their caucus, however, a number of other Democratic legislators voiced their opposition to the current cannabis legislation that’s being considered at the Capitol. So, even though it passed in recent weeks, the measure is still in a precarious position. 

Not Partisan; Many Democrats Opposed

Democratic state Sens. Saud Anwar, Christine Cohen, Alex Kasser and state Reps. John Hampton and Mary Mushinsky have already bucked their party and colleagues when it comes to legalizing cannabis. And advocates like Ward, who attempted to sway their opinions on the subject, realized it was a hopeless effort for a slew of Democrats. 

“We’ve tried to talk to those folks, tried to engage with them, dispel some of the myths, stave off some of their concerns, but folks are principled in their stance,” Ward admitted. 

As for Republicans, state Rep. Joe Polletta speaks for many within his own party. He’s against legalizing cannabis because “the driving force to this bill is revenue.”

State Rep. Joe Polletta, a Republican, airs his own concerns about legalizing recreational cannabis ahead of Wednesday’s special session. Photo by Gabriel Pietrorazio.

“They’re trying to make money off of it and just spend it every which way to the highway,” Polletta told The News Station. “If the bill changes, I’ll look at it, but it’s not something that I could support in its current form, and I think most, if not all, Republicans are in that category.”

In Hartford, Ward has “heard rumblings” that some House Republicans “might be voting in favor of the bill” while other GOP officials are now more receptive to at least batting around new ideas and even amendments since there’s more time “on the clock to tinker with the bill” itself ahead of Wednesday’s special session.

Echoing the state’s GOP minority leadership and party’s overarching position, Polletta suggests the legislative process has been rushed and shouldn’t be “just passing something overnight in special session.” Instead he’s urging state lawmakers to wait until the next session — just like he did last summer while opposing the police reform measure amid America’s racial reckoning.

“I don’t consider marijuana or police accountability something that warrants a special session. I can say that confidently,” Polletta said. “They punished the police last summer because of what happened with George Floyd… With cannabis, this is a knee-jerk reaction; they’re trying to do it because other states did it and the bill is flawed.”

However, the record of the city’s own police department might be considered equally flawed. The recent disciplining of five Hartford police officers is only the latest controversy that tops a laundry list of scandals stemming from the Hartford Police Department — a local law enforcement agency that’s supposed to safeguard the state’s capital.

In 1993, a grand jury charged two detectives with stealing cash, cars and drugs from street dealers and informants after an investigation occurred.

Six years later, four active and former Hartford police officers located at Frog Hollow, a substation near the Capitol building, were charged with threatening prostitutes with arrests if they didn’t comply with satisfying their sexual fantasies — while actively denying their civil rights and the list goes on and on.

The Connecticut State Police Union, as well as currently serving and retired police officers from across the state, arrived at the state’s Capital in July 2020 to oppose the police accountability bill. The unprecedented piece of legislation removed qualified immunity for police officers, among other reform efforts. Photo by Gabriel Pietrorazio

Still, righting past wrongs by legalizing marijuana — a substance police forces across Connecticut have used to harass and imprison communities of color at disproportionately higher rates than whites — isn’t a top priority for opponents who are afraid of all this change happening so quickly.

Like the unparalleled police accountability bill, legalizing cannabis is just another “big step for Connecticut,” Polletta says — one that “we really have to look at from all angles, not just from an economic standpoint.”

If the cannabis legislation passes, the state’s general sales tax of 6.35% will apply to cannabis as well. There’s an additional excise tax based on the THC content, all of which would be funneled into the state’s general fund until June 30, 2023.

After that predetermined benchmark, however, 60% of tax revenue would be dedicated to a newly-formed Social Equity and Innovation Fund for an additional three years — then 65% in 2026 — and 75% in 2028.

An authorized 3% municipal tax is allocated in the legislation, allowing for communities to divest funding for reinvestment projects like educational and cultural enrichment programs.

Finish Line in Sight, but Not Finished Yet

Arguments against the legislation for revenue-related reasons have become favorite talking points for opponents. While Reyes keeps hearing one version or another of what he calls a misleading trope — “the age old argument,” he lamented — from Republicans and Democrats alike, he staunchly disagrees with his political peers.

“Even in the BPRC, there are many colleagues that are opposed, but I don’t see it as a money grab,” Reyes said. “I really believe in the social piece, to be honest with you.” 

Rather, Reyes sees it as “a bill whose time has come,” and one he adds “could not be more appropriate.”

But it’s summertime and state lawmakers are already out-of-session, some of whom have already planned vacations — the getaways with families many had to put on hold during  COVID-19 lockdowns that have now been eased across the entire state.

“It’s going to be a delicate balance, trying to figure out what members are going to be present in preserving a majority, especially in the Senate, where the vote passed basically by a two-person difference,” Ward said.

In spite of several years’ worth of organizing in preparation of a marijuana legalization bill being eventually called to the Capitol floor in Hartford, Ward still believes it’s going to a “tight” vote.

Now, the clock is ticking in Connecticut — with advocates and lawmakers alike starting to count down the final days, hours, minutes and even seconds before Wednesday’s long-awaited special session.

“Timing’s everything,” Reyes said. “And I think it’s a good time to pass this particular legislation.”

Gabe is a freelance journalist located in the Northeast. He's a master's candidate at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, College Park. His full bio is here.

Gabe is a freelance journalist located in the Northeast. He's a master's candidate at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, College Park. His full bio is here.

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