House to vote on original marijuana deal to prevent veto

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — The Connecticut House of Representatives on Wednesday was debating an earlier version of a bill that would legalize the adult use of cannabis, a day after Gov. Ned Lamont threatened to veto a retooled rendition that had cleared the state Senate.

The decision by Democratic House leaders to strip a contentious provision about “social equity” applicants for marijuana licenses, which was added to the bill at the eleventh-hour in the Democratic controlled Senate on Tuesday, was made in hopes of salvaging a bill lawmakers have been debating at the state Capitol for multiple years.

“When the governor said he’d veto the bill. I think that’s what made everybody say, ‘Well that’s a game changer,’” said House Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford. He explained that it made sense to many lawmakers to instead vote on the version the House, Senate and Lamont had agreed upon last week and that Lamont would sign into law.

Despite the changes made to the bill on Wednesday, a string of Republican lawmakers voiced their opposition to the concept of legalizing the drug, which is still illegal under federal law. One by one, they warned it will send a harmful message to children and will lead to higher addiction rates and more car crashes.

Rep. Holly Cheeseman, R-East Lyme, who told an emotional story about how her late husband died in a 2012 crash, begged her colleagues to “hit the pause button” on the bill and come up with another way to address the inequities of the war on drugs — a key motivator for many supporters.

“If we feel that opportunities are needed in our cities, let’s work on that. But please, this is not the way. This is not the way when we know what the result is going to be,” Cheeseman said. “I don’t want to have to look in the face of a family and know I took a vote that may have created heartache and pain and took away a future,” she said.

But Rep. Steven Stafstrom, D-Bridgeport, co-chairman of the General Assembly’s Judiciary Committee, said Wednesday that “Connecticut’s time has finally come” to pass the long-awaited legislation.

“We take the next step as this chamber in recognizing the war on drugs has failed us and the criminalization of cannabis was the wrong course of action for our state and for our nation,” he said.

Wednesday’s debate at the state Capitol was happening in a special legislative session, one week after the General Assembly adjourned its regular session without the House voting on marijuana legalization. If the bill passes the House on Wednesday, as expected, the Senate is scheduled to vote again on the issue at 9:30 a.m. Thursday. It will be the third time senators will have voted on cannabis legalization.

The bill had appeared in jeopardy Tuesday after the Senate added an amendment which proponents said was supposed to address the concerns of advocates, including a handful of House members. They wanted to make sure people with criminal records, particularly marijuana-related offenses, would be able to participate in the new legal system.

But Paul Mounds, Lamont’s chief of staff, said the change would open up the industry and give preference to tens of thousands of people with a history of cannabis crimes, or members of their families, regardless of their financial means. He vowed Lamont would veto the bill if that provision remained.

“This last-minute amendment creates equity in name only by allowing these individuals expedited opportunity to obtain access to the marketplace,” Mounds said. Proponents said they disagreed with that assessment, but decided to instead return to the deal reached originally with Lamont.

Ritter said lawmakers were expected to keep a couple of the changes made Tuesday to the bill, including a provision that prevents elected officials, including state legislators, from being eligible to apply for a marijuana-related license for two years after leaving state service.

Under the bill, it will be legal for individuals 21 and older to possess and use cannabis beginning July 1. A person would be allowed to have up to 1.5 ounces, with an additional five ounces secured in their home or vehicle. Retail sales of recreational cannabis in Connecticut is not expected to begin until until May 2022, at the earliest.

Besides the cannabis legalization bill, the House was expected to vote on a bill that’s more than 800 pages and spells out details of the newly passed two-year $46.3 billion state budget, among other provisions. Ritter said some changes will be made to that bill as well, requiring another vote by the Senate.