HARTFORD, CONN. — Proponents of legalizing marijuana in Connecticut urged state lawmakers on Tuesday to act quickly and capitalize on the "novelty factor" of possibly becoming the first New England state to allow recreational use of the drug.
Tracy Helin, of Middletown, who is registered to use the state's medical marijuana program to relieve cancer symptoms, warned legislators who attended an informational hearing on legalization that time is of the essence. Recreational marijuana legalization is being considered in Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Vermont.
"If Connecticut is on the trailing end of this trend, we will miss the novelty factor ... it won't be the shiny new toy in a few years," he said, likening legalized marijuana to casinos, which have opened in a growing number of states over the years. "If we miss the boat on this, there will be many dollars lost when we're really in a budget crisis."
Helin would like the revenues to help reduce costs for medical marijuana participants. Others have suggested using the money to help address the state's opioid abuse problem or to balance the state's deficit-plagued budget.
Two bills legalizing the recreational use of marijuana already failed during this year's General Assembly session, due to inaction. But the bills' proponents held Tuesday's informational hearing at the Legislative Office Building to keep the issue alive. Rep. Juan Candelaria, D-New Haven, plans to resurrect the legalization bill next year.
"We will continue to have the dialogue and the discussions," he said, after hearing from dozens of people who mostly supported legalization. "We will continue to try to move something forward in this legislature. It may not happen in this legislature, it may not happen in the others, but who knows."
Legalization faces some strong opposition in Connecticut, despite support voiced Tuesday from people who said they use marijuana to relieve debilitating medical symptoms, consider smoking marijuana to be a harmless activity or have been caught up in the criminal justice system because of marijuana-related crimes. Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who backed the state's medical marijuana program and decriminalizing possession of small amounts of pot, reiterated Monday that he opposes the legalization of recreational marijuana.
"I think when you legalize marijuana, you're encouraging marijuana and that's not the place I want to go," Malloy said.
Recreational marijuana is already legal in four states and the District of Columbia. Proponents estimate Connecticut could reap about $50 million or more in revenues if it legalizes and taxes the drug.
Seamus Kelly, a Waterbury resident, warned legislators they could be "squandering this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity" if they allow other states in the region to legalize pot first.
"They will dine in opulence and you will lay off more Connecticut citizens," Kelly said, referring to looming state employee layoffs Malloy has said are needed to help cover projected budget deficits. The new fiscal year, beginning July 1, is about $900 million in the red.
Colorado state Rep. Dan Pabon, who helped to write that state's marijuana legalization law, told his Connecticut counterparts that Colorado is also facing budget challenges and severe spending cuts have been necessary. He said the state's marijuana regulatory program has remained intact because it generates enough revenue to support itself.
Pabon suggested that if Connecticut ultimately legalizes pot, it shouldn't allow people to grow the drug at home. While Colorado's law allows individual adults to grow up to six plants, there's a provision which allows so-called "caregivers" to grow up to 99 plants per patient in a home. Pabon said he believes the caregiver program has been a contributor to black market marijuana.
"If I had to do it all over again," he said, "we would not allow home-grow facilities."