OP-ED | Lawmakers Need To Move On Legal Cannabis, Or Cede the Upside
It seems like our culture is changing at breakneck speed before our very eyes. Over the past 25 years, the internet, smartphones, and the information revolution are the most visible reminders of how far we’ve come since the days of afternoon newspapers, letters to the editor, and Walter Cronkite. Moreover, the lightning speed of the shift in attitudes toward the LGBTQ community has left my head spinning.
Now we are watching another cultural change developing largely outside our state: the lifting of the veil of wrongdoing over those who consume cannabis products. We started gently here in Connecticut, legalizing medical marijuana in 2012.
Other states have moved more deliberately into legalizing the sale, possession and use of recreational marijuana. For some reason — and I think I know why — we have been reluctant to take that step.
Of the nine states that have legalized so-called adult-use cannabis, only one has done so through the legislative process. There is a reason for that. In the unlikely event that legalized marijuana triggers some sort of epidemic, politicians crave plausible deniability. They can simply say, “Hey, the people spoke. We had nothing to do with it.”
Since there is no mechanism for ballot initiatives in Connecticut, the General Assembly must pass enabling legislation and it must be signed by the governor. Former Gov. Dannel Malloy was opposed to legalizing adult-use, and most lawmakers appeared either opposed or ambivalent. But newly sworn-in Gov. Ned Lamont has signaled that he favors legalization. So there is hope, though as of this past weekend, it does appear that the General Assembly is a few votes short.
In my day job as an editor and reporter for a news and culture website in the Berkshires, I have seen firsthand the progress made on cannabis in Massachusetts. The state legalized the medical variety at about the same time as Connecticut, but in 2016 the recreational side was also made legal through — you guessed it — a ballot initiative.
The initial marijuana legalization bill to surface in Hartford would award the first recreational licenses to established medical marijuana dispensaries. The Massachusetts law made no such stipulation but that’s pretty much how it worked out anyway. The medical dispensaries had a leg up on the licensing process because they were already built and had invested in the necessary infrastructure and enhanced security measures.
In the battle over legalization, it really is pointless to even discuss whether marijuana is good for you or bad for you. There is ample evidence that it is neither dangerous nor harmless, but debating the topic is now largely academic because those who want the product will either buy it on the black market or travel to a neighboring state. Like it or not, legal weed is coming to Connecticut and the best thing we can do is educate the public about its risks, while competently managing the production and sale of the product.
Massachusetts appears to have done that — at least so far. Our neighbor learned from mistakes made in the western states where it had been legalized earlier. Indeed, in anticipation of Bay State voters legalizing the stuff, lawmakers on Beacon Hill traveled to Colorado on a fact-finding visit. And the newly assembled Cannabis Control Commission, which took its time in devising a rollout (two years to be exact), won praise from Gov. Charlie Baker, who had previously opposed non-medical legalization.
The first recreational store in my neck of the woods, Theory Wellness, opened Jan. 11. As was the case with the handful of stores that had already opened elsewhere in the state, lines were long, necessitating a wait of two hours or more to get in the door. I was struck not only by the demand, but on social media I wrote:
“There is something rather uplifting about finally seeing people who want to buy cannabis out in the open, patronizing a local business that employs 100 people and pays taxes, rather than meeting a drug dealer in some parking lot or rest area with the entire transaction sub rosa from start to finish.”
I can only hope that anxious lawmakers in Connecticut eventually feel the same. Bringing adult-use cannabis out of the black market will not only bring in perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars a year in badly needed revenues, but the transparency of the legal market will put thousands of horticulturists, managers, quality control specialists, and salespersons officially on the books and paying taxes into the system.
Given both the existing and future availability of adult-use cannabis, I cannot for the life of me understand why there are those who think Connecticut shouldn’t benefit from it. If we continue with prohibition, use of cannabis will continue anyway and the state will cede the upside to not only Massachusetts, but likely Rhode Island as well.
Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill lives in Lakeville, blogs at CTDevilsAdvocate.com and is managing editor of The Berkshire Edge in Great Barrington, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill or email him at [email protected]
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