HARTFORD, Conn. — Connecticut’s continuing fiscal woes, coupled with a new law that fully takes effect next year in neighboring Massachusetts, have prompted state lawmakers to take their most serious look yet at possibly legalizing the recreational use of marijuana for adults.
Several bills with bipartisan support that sanction the retail sale and cultivation of pot are currently progressing through the General Assembly. The first bill drew dozens of supporters last week at a Public Health Committee hearing, many lauding the legislation as a way to regulate an illegal industry and potentially deliver millions of dollars for the state’s coffers.
“Why should we continue to give business opportunities to violent criminals who don’t pay taxes and follow no regulations,” asked Democratic Rep. Robyn Porter at the hearing.
Yet, despite the apparent growing enthusiasm and the fact Connecticut already legalized the medical use of marijuana, it’s questionable whether any of the recreational-use bills will ultimately survive this session. Some politicians, including Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, contend Connecticut should first wait and see what happens to its neighbors to the north.
In Massachusetts, it’s now legal to possess, use and grow small amounts of marijuana. However, the drug can’t be purchased legally yet because retail shops aren’t expected to open until mid-2018.
“We have Massachusetts. Let them go through the growing pains,” said Rep. Joe de la Cruz, a Democrat. “We walk into this thing. We take our time. Why do we need to make it legal this year?”
Malloy agrees. The Democratic governor has said he doesn’t think the state should play a role in “promoting” marijuana use, even though he pushed for Connecticut’s law that decriminalizes the possession of small amounts of marijuana.
“I think we should hit the pause button and watch how it works in the region,” Malloy said in December, adding how “all the news is not good” in states that have fully legalized recreational usage. Seven states and the District of Columbia have adopted recreational marijuana laws.
Meg Green, a spokeswoman for the governor, said last week that Malloy’s “personal position has not changed,” but “he is following the debate as this proposal works through the legislative process.”
Connecticut’s debate over recreational marijuana comes as lawmakers grapple with a budget deficit estimated to be as much as $1.7 billion next fiscal year, which begins July 1. A report released Feb. 1 from the legislature’s nonpartisan Office of Fiscal Analysis determined the state could generate millions of dollars in new revenue, but not enough to cover that red ink.
If the state adopts the Massachusetts framework, tax revenue from retail marijuana sales is estimated to generate $8.9 million in the first year, assuming it was implemented Jan. 1, 2018. The Massachusetts model is projected to generate $30.1 million in state taxes and fees in the first full year of implementation. Meanwhile, if Connecticut adopts the Colorado taxing model, the Office estimates the state could generate about $13.6 million in the first year and $63.9 million in state taxes and fees in the first full year.
The Office of Fiscal Analysis also estimates it could cost Connecticut 14 percent of the total tax revenues to regulate recreational marijuana.
Senate Republican Leader Len Fasano, who doesn’t foresee the legislation passing this year, takes issue with the financial argument being made by some proponents.
“What I see is people saying that, ‘Economically, this is what we have to do.’ That argument proves too much,” he said. “If everything is rooted on economics and we should allow it to happen because we can get money, then we should allow bookies to book, right?”