HARTFORD, Conn. — As a multimillion-dollar fight over recreational marijuana in Massachusetts races toward the finish line, both sides of the debate in Connecticut are keeping a close eye on a vote that could open the door to legalization across New England.
Massachusetts is one of five states where measures to legalize and regulate the sale of recreational marijuana will be on the ballot. Voters in Arizona, California, Maine and Nevada will also vote on the issue. An affirmative vote in Maine or Massachusetts would bring legal recreational marijuana to the region for the first time, putting new pressure on those in the state that oppose expanded marijuana use.
Jill Spineti, president and CEO of the Governor’s Prevention Partnership, said her group wasn’t yet willing to shift the dialogue from opposing recreational marijuana use to figuring out the best way to regulate it. At the same time she acknowledged how legal cannabis across the border would complicate that fight.
“We’re staying focused on opposition,” Spineti said. “But I do believe that if Massachusetts approves it, it will be much harder to oppose it here.”
There’s also the question of people crossing the border to buy marijuana. Something Spineti said some Connecticut employers have raised concerns about.
It’s been almost two years since a public opinion poll asked Connecticut voters about marijuana legalization. In that March 2015 Quinnipiac Poll, 63 percent of voters said they supported allowing adults to possess small amounts of marijuana for personal use.
The four states that have legalized marijuana for recreational use — Alaska, Colorado, Oregon and Washington — have all done so through ballot initiatives, an option that’s not available here. In Connecticut the legislature would have to approve a bill, and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy would have to sign it. Malloy, who supported enacting the state’s medical marijuana program and decriminalizing the drug, has said that’s as far as he’s willing to go.
But that hasn’t stopped the issue from coming up at the Capitol. A legalization and taxation bill was introduced last year and had about a dozen Democratic co-sponsors. An informal informational hearing was held with experts on both sides offering testimony before interested legislators.
Proponents of the bill said Connecticut would be losing out on valuable tax dollars if it wasn’t the first state in New England to move forward with recreational marijuana legalization. State Rep. Vin Candelora, a Republican from North Branford who opposed the bill, said lawmakers shouldn’t see tax revenue from the legalization of marijuana as a solution to the state’s budget problems. He called it “blood money.”
“I think generally speaking it’s a sad day when we’re using gambling and illicit drugs as economic development,” Candelora said.
The amount of revenue taxing marijuana would bring to Connecticut is unclear. A report two years ago from the legislature’s nonpartisan fiscal office said Connecticut could see $25 million to $55 million in annual revenue from marijuana taxes.
Rep. Edwin Vargas, a Hartford Democrat who supported the marijuana legalization bill, said money that is funding criminal enterprises would instead be directed toward state government. Drug dealers would see their business undercut, he said, and fewer youths would be arrested for dealing.
“I knew all along this was going to sweep the states after the success in Colorado,” Vargas said. Colorado, the first state to legalize and tax recreational marijuana use, brought in $130 million in tax revenue in the last fiscal year. “The only thing I feel bad about is we could have been first in the area and established the industry here. The one that establishes the industry first has a huge advantage.”
At the University of Massachusetts two weeks ago, Rick Steves, an author and travel host who helped with the marijuana legalization effort in his home state of Washington, talked about the tax benefit. But he also made a civil liberties and criminal justice argument.
“I’m a hardworking, kid-raising, church-going, taxpaying American citizen,” he told the crowd of about 100 students and residents. “If I work hard all day long, want to go home, smoke a joint and just stare at the fireplace for three hours, that’s my civil liberty.”
Steves said marijuana could be regulated like alcohol. He didn’t buy arguments by opponents who say it’s a gateway drug, or that legalizing marijuana will lead to increased use by youths.
“The opponents of these initiatives and moves to legalize, tax and regulate marijuana, they cherry-pick their problems and they don’t recognize that the major problem is with us right now — its called the status quo. We’re arresting hundreds of thousands of people every year for nonviolent marijuana crimes. They’re not rich white people, they’re poor people and people of color. That’s a real problem.”
Steves acknowledged the difficulty getting marijuana legalized through a legislative effort rather than by ballot. Lawmakers in Vermont and Rhode Island had bills that progressed further than Connecticut’s but neither were adopted. But public opinion is shifting. A national Pew poll released this month showed 57 percent of adults were in favor of legalizing marijuana use, up from 32 percent 10 years ago.
“Politicians are realizing that the days when somebody could condemn you as being soft on drugs are slipping away,” Steves said. “I don’t think the issue is are you soft on drugs or are you hard on drugs. Now the issue is are you smart about drug policy reform?”