A legislative hearing on marijuana legalization began Wednesday with a warning that lawmakers risk “opening a floodgate” to more drug abuse, traffic fatalities and hospital visits.
Robyn Sneider, a Clinton resident and a member of the Connecticut Association of Prevention Professionals, said she’s never heard anyone involved in prevention or treatment of drug abuse advocate legalization of pot.
“Marijuana is a gateway to destruction,” Sneider said. She told the Judiciary Committee that children get started toward drug abuse by using marijuana and alcohol. She said legalization would make pot much more available to children as well as adults. “We may as well add weed to our Halloween baskets,” she said.
The bill now before the legislature to legalize recreational cannabis calls for a total state tax on pot sales of 30 percent, and the plan’s supporters say that could bring in $100 million a year to help solve projected billion-dollar deficits.
Scores of people signed up to testify both for and against legislation to legalize recreational marijuana in Connecticut.
Rep. Toni Walker, a New Haven Democrat on the legislature’s Judiciary Committee, said making pot use a criminal offense pushes young people into the court and prison systems.
Dr. Deepak D’Souza, a Yale University professor and psychiatrist, testified that his 25 years of research into the effects of cannabis on humans and animals has left him with serious concerns that legalization of pot will lead to more drug addiction, more traffic fatalities and will result in greater use of marijuana by the mentally ill.
D’Souza said many studies have confirmed that “about 10 percent of people who try marijuana become dependent” on pot. He said research has proven that cannabis use impairs brain functions critical to safe driving. He said driving on crowded highways like I-95 is already difficult. “Driving on I-95 with people who are stoned is a very bad idea,” he said.
But Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven, countered that there is a Washington study that found only 3 percent of drivers involved in fatal accidents in that state between 2010 and 2014 had been using marijuana. She said the study found that pot “was not the main factor” in the vast majority of those accidents, and that alcohol and texting and other types of distracted driving are all more significant issues with accident than marijuana use.
Rep. William Tong, a Stamford Democrat and House chair of the Judiciary Committee, questioned D’Souza’s statement about the addictive qualities of marijuana. He said the committee has received testimony from other experts that is “diametrically opposed” to D’Souza’s claims, and that pot isn’t very addictive.
But D’Souza insisted scientific studies in Europe as well as his own research has established that pot will be addictive to some people.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has called the potential influx of pot tax revenue “blood money,” and other opponents warn of the social, legal and financial troubles surrounding cannabis use. Many lawmakers are clearly uncomfortable with the idea of approving recreational marijuana and don’t think it can pass this year.
Connecticut is facing a $1.7 billion budget gap for the fiscal year that begins July 1. Malloy has proposed a laundry list of harsh and unpopular spending cuts to cities and towns, social services and environmental programs, and lawmakers are scrambling to come up with alternatives.
According to supporters of the legislation, pot taxes would include a 23.65 percent gross receipts tax plus the 6.35 percent sales tax, for an effective overall rate of 30 percent. The bill calls for alegalization date of July 1, 2018.
Looney said experts estimate that pot taxes would bring in $13 million in revenue in the first six months, $64 million in the first full year of legalization, and $100 million a year after that.
The legalization bill would prohibit pot use by anyone under 21; limit legal possession to no more than 1 ounce of marijuana; and allow home cultivation of five plants per adult. The legislation would allow for five types of marijuana businesses, all licensed and regulated by the state: pot retailers, lounges, cultivation facilities, product manufacturers, and laboratories.
Cities and towns would have authority to ban marijuana businesses or limit their numbers within a municipality’s jurisdiction. Employers could continue to prohibit workers from using or possessing pot on the job.
Connecticut faces legalized marijuana competition from several of its neighbors. Voters in Massachusetts and Maine have approved recreational pot and officials in those states are now debating how and when to put legalization into effect. Rhode Island lawmakers are now weighing recreational marijuana. .
At a press conference before the hearing, legalization supporters said they were focusing new energy on Connecticut, where the state is facing a budget crisis.
“I think everybody knows how much money has come into Colorado and Washington as a result of their regulating and taxing of marijuana,” said Becky Dansky, legislative council with the Marijuana Policy Project, referencing the $200 million in taxes and fees from Colorado’s market and the $250 million from Washington state.