Le­gal pot sup­port­ers re­group as the black mar­ket thrives

Greenwich Time (Sunday) - - FRONT PAGE - By Ken Dixon

HART­FORD — The im­mi­nent fail­ure of ma­jor­ity Democrats in the Gen­eral Assem­bly to muster enough sup­port for the full le­gal­iza­tion of mar­i­juana means the state’s cannabis mar­ket, es­ti­mated at nearly $1 bil­lion, will stay un­der­ground for the time be­ing. Ad­vo­cates, stunned by what ap­pears to be a col­lapse of sup­port over

the last few weeks, are left to re­group and con­sider fu­ture strat­egy, in­clud­ing a pos­si­ble amend­ment to the state Con­sti­tu­tion.

The con­sumer landscape won’t change. A glut of high-po­tency mar­i­juana makes black-mar­ket prices half the cost of le­gal cannabis in Mas­sachusetts. But the out­law in­dus­try also poses haz­ards for con­sumers, who don’t know who is grow­ing it or what they are buy­ing.

There are no le­gal pro­tec­tions for buy­ers or sell­ers. And of course, the state doesn’t get a cut.

Those with­out Connecticu­t cannabis con­nec­tions can drive to one of the 18 Mas­sachusetts re­tail out­lets, pay their taxes to our neigh­bor­ing state, and re­turn home with their pur­chases — though cross­ing state lines re­mains an in­frac­tion even though pos­ses­sion of less than one-half ounce is not a mis­de­meanor.

Those with lo­cal deal­ers are sav­ing up to 50 per­cent of the costs in Mas­sachusetts, ad­vo­cates of re­tail sales es­ti­mate. One-eighth of 1 ounce of dried cannabis flow­ers — 3.5 grams — which sells for about $60 in Mas­sachusetts (in­clud­ing taxes of 20 per­cent), now fetches about $30 on the street in Connecticu­t, the ad­vo­cates said.

Connecticu­t grow­ers and sell­ers face the le­gal risks that still ex­ist for traf­fick­ing, along with the possibilit­y of get­ting bur­glar­ized or robbed.

“This black mar­ket is big, and it’s forc­ing peo­ple into form­ing criminal or­ga­ni­za­tions,” said Joseph Ray­mond of the New England Craft Cannabis Al­liance, who has ad­vo­cated for the full-le­gal­iza­tion bills be­fore the Gen­eral Assem­bly this year.

The re­al­i­ties of the mar­ket­place could have changed dras­ti­cally had state law­mak­ers bought into the par­a­digm of le­gal sales and sup­port, as writ­ten in the pend­ing leg­is­la­tion, for ur­ban com­mu­ni­ties im­pacted by decades of drug law en­force­ment and racially dis­parate in­car­cer­a­tion.

‘Po­lit­i­cal bu­reau­cracy garbage’

While the le­gal­iza­tion ini­tia­tive sup­ported last year dur­ing Gov. Ned La­mont’s suc­cess­ful elec­tion cam­paign was ap­proved by three leg­isla­tive com­mit­tees, balk­ing law­mak­ers are now on the verge of let­ting it die on the vine for this ses­sion, which ends at mid­night June 5.

Ray­mond blames se­nior Demo­cratic lead­ers who don’t want to jeop­ar­dize law­mak­ers in swing dis­tricts.

“It re­ally sad­dens me that they put a car­rot in front of us this ses­sion and just wasted our time,” Ray­mond said. “But it does al­low us to see what Democrats need to be taken out of of­fice by a grass­roots ef­fort. This is like the worst po­lit­i­cal bu­reau­cracy garbage we’ve seen in the four or five years some of us have in­vested in it. Mean­while, ir­repara­ble dam­age is be­ing done to vul­ner­a­ble com­mu­ni­ties. They are go­ing to recre­ate the Roar­ing Twen­ties in Connecticu­t.”

If ap­proved, Connecticu­t would be the first state to en­act full le­gal­iza­tion with­out a vo­ter­driven res­o­lu­tion or propo­si­tion on a statewide bal­lot forc­ing leg­is­la­tors to act.

It’s likely that no Repub­li­cans would vote for the bill. For many mid­dle-of-the-road Democrats, the is­sues are thorny as they fear vul­ner­a­bil­ity in their 2020 re­elec­tion races. A hard push by an organizati­on of AfricanAme­r­i­can pas­tors, see­ing more addiction in cities, swayed some law­mak­ers in re­cent days.

“We’ve had nine states now where vot­ers have made mar­i­juana le­gal and cer­tainly that shows that there’s pop­u­lar sup­port in state af­ter state,” said Karen O’Keefe, di­rec­tor of state poli­cies for the Mar­i­juana Pol­icy Project.

Dur­ing an in­ter­view in the state Capi­tol, O’Keefe ac­knowl­edged that for some elected of­fi­cials, it’s a heavy lift to act fa­vor­ably on cannabis, even though a Sa­cred Heart Univer­sity Poll showed 70 per­cent sup­port statewide.

A vote in the Pa­cific is­lands

“It’s eas­ier when you have the opportunit­y to ask vot­ers di­rectly, since they’re sup­port­ive, and politi­cians tend to be a lot more cau­tious and be­hind-the-times when it comes to mar­i­juana pol­icy,” O’Keefe said. “We’ve got 80 to 90 per­cent sup­port na­tion­wide for med­i­cal mar­i­juana and we still only have 33 states with med­i­cal-mar­i­juana laws.”

In the con­ti­nen­tal U.S., only the Ver­mont leg­is­la­ture has ap­proved even a par­tial leg­is­la­tion pro­gram, al­low­ing res­i­dents to grow a few plants on their prop­er­ties. Law­mak­ers there are still grap­pling with a re­tail model, in­clud­ing li­cen­sure, dis­tri­bu­tion and grow­ing reg­u­la­tions.

Leg­is­la­tors in the Com­mon­wealth of the North­ern Mar­i­anas Is­lands, a U.S. pos­ses­sion in the Pa­cific Ocean, ap­proved full le­gal­iza­tion last fall.

O’Keefe stressed that mar­i­juana on the il­licit mar­ket keeps con­sumers in the dark on its ori­gins, how work­ers were treated and whether the cannabis was dosed with pes­ti­cides or even heavy met­als. The Mas­sachusetts prod­ucts, like Connecticu­t’s na­tion­ally known med­i­cal cannabis pro­grams re­quire ex­ten­sive lab­o­ra­tory test­ing.

She said un­der a le­gal cannabis model, prices go down even­tu­ally, as sup­ply meets de­mand.

“Ini­tially the costs for con­sumers might be a lit­tle bit higher, like Mas­sachusetts, when you have a very lim­ited sup­ply, but in time it should be way bet­ter for con­sumers both in terms of hav­ing a tested, safe prod­uct; and know­ing they’re not go­ing to have some­one pull a gun on them when they’re buy­ing cannabis,” she said.

She added that even though prices are low on the un­der­ground mar­ket now, they can rise because of the risks and lack of economies of scale.

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