New marijuana bill favors poor residents for retail licenses
HARTFORD — Proponents of recreational cannabis want to use legalization as a tool for lifting people out of poverty, a new draft of proposed legislation shows.
A revised version of the General Law Committee’s cannabis legislation would allow people who have lived for five years in impoverished census tracks with high employment to be among the first to obtain licenses to own cannabis retailers and get those licenses at a discounted rate.
This is a new addition to the legislature’s definition of an “equity applicant” for a cannabis retailer license. The change is likely to apply to residents of urban areas, but also could apply to some poor rural parts of the state.
The revision will pair with legislation passed out of the Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee that directs some of the revenue collected through the taxation of recreational pot to be sent to these same needy census tracks.
“We are going to look not at the city level, but at actual street, line-by-line, neighborhood-byneighborhood data, census track information,” said Rep. Michael D’Agostino, a Hamden Democrat who chairs the General Law Committee and spearheaded the revision of the legislation. “Where is there high unemployment? Where is there high poverty? These are the areas that have been underserved and that’s anywhere in the state — cities or rural communities, black or white, we don’t care.”
Rep. Vincent Candelora, RNorth Branford, said expanding the equity applicant definition to include residents of poor neighborhoods was a political ploy to buy votes.
“Expanding equity owners to rural, poor communities just reeks of the fact that we’re trying to buy more support within the chamber as opposed to crafting sound public policy,” he said.
This concept was supported by some Democrats earlier in the session, but not all Democrats like it. Rep. Juan Candelaria, D-New Haven, sees this law as a way to rebuild minority communities where drug arrests prevent people from accessing work — but it has to be crafted right.
“Are we looking at communities that have been disproportionately impacted by marijuana-related crimes or are we opening the door to anybody based on their unemployment rate?” said Candelaria. “I don’t think that was the purpose of equity applicants.”
Like in previous versions of the bill, in the new draft people who were arrested or convicted of the possession, sale or cultivation of marijuana or who have a parent or child who was arrested or convicted of the same will also be considered “equity applicants.”
While Democrats do not want the new legal weed market to be dominated by traditional white corporate interests, they recognize that poor entrepreneurs will need seed money to get into the cannabis business. The revised version of the bill, made public on Tuesday, also includes a new provision that allows an equity applicant to have a backer who owns 49 percent of their business.
“That lets you as a new applicant — and you don’t have the start-up costs — you can get a big partner behind you to get off the ground,” said D’Agostino. “We’re trying to address the issue they had in Massachusetts where nobody applied because of the start-up costs.”
Candelaria applauded the inclusion of this provision in the bill, but wanted to lengthen the time before equity applicants can sell their businesses to nonequity applicants and provide equity applicants technical support in starting their companies.
The new draft also includes language which requires retailers to have an electronic “seedto-sale” tracking system. Economists who study legal marijuana markets say these systems are important so states have the data to adjust their tax policies or regulatory structures in the future.
“The question is does that impose too high of a (cost) burden on new retailers?” D’Agostino said.
D’Agostino believes this new General Law bill will win more supporters because it amps up the legislature commitment to addressing equity and poverty, while increasing the regulation of the drug, he said.
Rep. Holly Cheeseman of Niantic, the lead Republican on the General Law Committee, said the new draft does nothing to address her concerns about cannabis addictions, increased car accidents, high-potency marijuana and the cost of addressing the drug’s social ills. If Democrats want to send more money to poor communities, she asked why don’t they do so through the state budget instead of legalizing a drug with “destructive side effects”?
Candelaria said Democrats would send fund to these communities if they had the revenue in the budget to do it without legalization.
The revised bill is not the final legislation on recreational marijuana that the House and Senate would vote on. This bill still needs to be combined with proposed legislation from the Finance Committee detailing the tax structure and state uses of recreational cannabis revenue and with legislation from the Judiciary Committee regarding the criminal records of those previously convicted on cannabis-related charges.
“I hope we will have a conference in a week where we can get together and do it,” said D’Agostino. “It shouldn’t be too hard to bolt them all together and eliminate duplication.”
This revised General Law bill still does not permit Connecticut residents to grow their own cannabis, but like previous versions, it says grow-your-own should be studied. That provision may change before final passage, however.
“We’re still talking about that,” said D’Agostino. “I personally would like to see it at least for medical patients, but it’s one of those issues we really need to discuss it among those members to see if these is enough support to include it.”
Libertarians favor grow-yourown cannabis style legislation, said Candelora. While it can be difficult to regulate how many plants people grow at home — important for distinguishing growth for personal use versus sale — the do-it-yourself model separates legalization from commercial interests. Candelora, who now opposes legalization, would support that.
“Vermont’s model is a much, I think, safer model because people aren’t incentivized to profit and people are given the freedom to just grow it in their own home if they choose,” he said.
The draft bill maintains the same structure of cannabis cultivators, manufacturers and retailers overseen by a Cannabis Commission and the state Department of Consumer Protection.
The legislation makes many technical changes to spell out regulations that the cannabis industry must comply with — for example, rules about how cannabis products must be packaged. The legislation also strengthens the ability of the Department of Consumer Protection to enforce those regulations.
Only adults 21 years and older will be allowed to purchase recreational cannabis. Purchases will be limited to one ounce per transaction.