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Lamont signs Connecticut's recreational cannabis bill into law

Gov. Ned Lamont signed a bill legalizing recreational cannabis on Tuesday surrounded by Democratic Party leaders and proponents of the legislation.

Lamont’s signature codifies the state legislature’s decision to approve adult-use marijuana. Come July 1, possession of marijuana will be legal in Connecticut, and retail sales likely will be underway by May 2022. A monthslong process to legalize marijuana, which some lawmakers noted has been decades in the making, at last reached a conclusion during the special session last week after an arduous back and forth between chambers.

“It’s an important thing to do on a number of fronts, number one in terms of equity and social justice,” Lamont said Tuesday. “I love the fact that this is an equity fund that’s going to give folks who sometimes don’t have access the capital they need to start up their own business. (The bill is) focused on the most stressed communities, those communities that were hardest-hit by the war on drugs, making up for some lost time there.”

Legalized homegrown marijuana, opportunities for those impacted by drug laws and steep licensing fees for existing dispensaries are included in the bill passed last week by the legislature. The Department of Consumer Protection will be in charge of awarding licenses to retailers and cultivators. Shops can be set up in any city or town in the state, though municipalities have the power to ban the existence of dispensaries or cannabis deliveries in their jurisdiction. The state's medical marijuana dispensaries will have the opportunity to sell recreational cannabis, as well, but for the price of $1 million, or $500,000 if the venture is majority-owned by an equity applicant.

The equity applicant program is designed for those who live in specific geographical areas that have been disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs, allowing them to have an easier and separate process to start a marijuana enterprise, rather than competing with corporations. Equity applicants must have at minimum 65% ownership and control of relevant companies. A “Social Equity Council” will evaluate applications from equity applicants.

Senate President Martin Looney, D-New Haven, said the evaluation of appointments to the council already has begun. House Majority Leader Jason Rojas, D-East Hartford, acknowledged a roughly six-week deadline on assembling the council. He said the timeframe is realistic “if you start working right now.”

“We’ve already begun the conversation in our office about how we’re going to identify the most qualified people to serve on the equity council,” Rojas said. “I’m focused on it, I’m sure everybody who has appointments is focused on ensuring that we get that equity council appointed.”

At a news conference accompanying the signing, the governor and state legislators also took questions regarding whether the state would have enough supply for the demand of retail recreational cannabis and municipalities' role in the process.

Rojas and state Rep. Michael D’Agostino, D-Hamden, said they were not concerned about a lack of supply. Rojas said he’s hoping to see a “cottage industry” of both small and large cultivators in the state.

Municipalities will be afforded certain powers under the bill. Towns can prohibit cannabis delivery and businesses within their town lines. Towns also will be able to regulate businesses’ signage and hours if allowed within the town. The bill allows only one retailer and one retail grower per 25,000 residents — a limit that could be altered in 2024.

The bill provides for referendums regarding selling cannabis within a town if voters provide a petition that must reach a specific threshold. Rojas said towns will have to be accountable to what resident voters want. If towns do prohibit dispensaries, he noted, “There is the lost opportunity of some additional revenue for towns and cities, as they are always seeking to diversify their revenue streams.”

Lamont added that he thinks cannabis will become a “growing industry” in Connecticut once up and running.

Also under the bill, starting July 1 of this year, people can no longer have their parole revoked for using cannabis in some circumstances. And beginning a year later, people can file petitions to have their criminal records erased for certain cannabis-related charges. In 2023, people will have convictions between 2000 and 2015 expunged for possession less than 4 ounces of marijuana. The bill bans landlords and colleges/universities from taking actions against tenants and students for marijuana-related issues.

State Sen. Paul Formica, R-East Lyme, and Senate Republican Leader Kevin Kelly, R-Stratford, sent out a joint statement on Tuesday calling the passage of the bill a "calamity."

"Democrats focused on the money — not on the public health and social impact," the senators said. "The advice of doctors who fiercely opposed the bill and the science was ignored. The fingerprints of the Hartford well-connected were all over this bill to determine who will get the licenses to sell ... Families will be shocked when they find out you can smoke marijuana at beaches and parks, in their own neighborhoods, and at many other outdoor recreation areas. Legalization of marijuana will increase access for children."

s.spinella@theday.com

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