HARTFORD – With other New England states considering legalizing the recreational use of marijuana, a New Haven lawmaker wants a discussion about the issue at the Capitol this session.
“I’m going to be pushing very hard,” Rep. Juan Candelaria, a Democrat, said Thursday, the day he introduced legislation that would legalize the sale and use of marijuana for adults over 21. “I’m going to be engaging my leadership in conversation to at least allow a public hearing.”
Candelaria knows legalization may be a long shot – he introduced a similar bill last year that was never raised in committee – but he thinks it’s important lawmakers hear from the public. A Quinnipiac Poll last March showed 63 percent of voters supported allowing adults to legally possess small amounts of marijuana for personal use.
In addition to “taking the drugs out of the hands of dealers,” the legalization and taxation of marijuana could bring revenue to the state at a time when large deficits are looming, Candelaria said. Colorado marijuana businesses sold nearly $1 billion of product last year, generating $135 million in taxes and fees.
Nine Democratic lawmakers from cities including Bridgeport and Hartford, and Rep. Gregory Haddad, who represents Mansfield, where UConn’s Storrs campus is located, joined Candelaria in filing a second, more specific legalization bill later Thursday. That legislation listed requirements including child-safe packaging, oversight by the Department of Consumer Protection and a ban on public use of the drug.
Rep. Matt Lesser of Middletown, one of the nine, said he was hopeful and believed there would be a public hearing on the bill.
“I think the fiscal situation the state finds itself in is fertile ground for discussing the legalization of marijuana,” said Rep. Ed Vargas of Hartford, another co-sponsor, who also said he believed legislators were interested in a public hearing.
But in the midst of a short legislative session in an election year, and with lawmakers focused on fixing a projected deficit of more than $500 million in the next fiscal year, there appears little likelihood that legislative leaders will vote on a controversial issue like marijuana legalization.
Gov, Dannel P. Malloy was lukewarm to the idea when asked about it on Thursday. In 2012, the Democratic governor signed a bill that allows physicians to prescribe marijuana for certain medical conditions.
“That’s as far as I’m comfortable going,” Malloy said. “But certainly every member of the legislature is entitled to their own opinion. We’ll see what happens.”
“It’s not my proposal,” Malloy added.
Rep. Vin Candelora, a Republican from North Branford, said it’s a mistake to talk about legalizing marijuana when the region is in the throes of an opioid crisis. He also doesn’t want to see taxation of marijuana as a way to plug a hole in the state budget.
“I don’t think it’s helpful to begin a conversation about allowing people to smoke pot in their living room so the state can get revenue out of it,” Candelora said.
Several New England states this year are considering full-scale legalization. Lawmakers from Massachusetts traveled to Colorado to study that state’s marijuana industry, and a ballot measure on the issue will be before Bay State voters in November. In Vermont, Gov. Peter Shumlin outlined a legalization plan in his state of the state address. Lawmakers from Rhode Island plan to raise a bill again this year.
Colorado, Washington, Alaska, Oregon and Washington, D.C., have legalized recreational marijuana through ballot measures, a process not used in Connecticut.
Sam Tracy, a UConn graduate who works in the medical marijuana industry in Massachusetts, said he doesn’t think a legalization bill will pass in the state this year, but that Vermont’s bill has a good chance of succeeding as does Massachusetts’ ballot question. And if either of those happen, “I think Connecticut will follow suit in a year or two,” he said.
Tracy, who was chairman of Students for Sensible Drug Policy while at UConn, said that although Connecticut is considered to be a progressive state “we often don’t want to be the first to do something.”
Possession of less than half an ounce of marijuana is currently a civil penalty with a $150 fine, with penalties rising based on the number of offenses and amount possessed.
Candelaria said he is open to regulations and wants to make sure youth aren’t enticed by the drug if his proposal moves forward. For example, the sale and possession of the drug could be legalized but growing could be restricted to the operations that have already started to support the state’s medicinal program, he said.
“We cannot deny these drugs, at least marijuana, is available, currently, as we speak, without any regulation,” Candelaria said.
Courant staff writer Daniela Altimari contributed to this story.