Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has been a steadfast opponent of legalizing marijuana for recreational use but several of the candidates seeking to replace him in 2018 said they favor legalizing and taxing the drug.
"Yes, I will sign a bill to legalize it,'' said Democrat Dan Drew. "There are an awful lot of people who use cannabis for a variety of reasons… wouldn’t it be better if we control the process on the front end, if we were able to regulate it?"
Drew made his comments during a 90-minute forum at Yale University Tuesday night that was hosted by the Connecticut chapter of the National Organization for the reform of Marijuana Laws and Students for Sensible Drug Policy at Yale. He was one of four candidates to participate in the debate; organizers said they invited most of the vast field but the other candidates said they had conflicts or did not respond.
Former consumer protection commissioner Jonathan Harris of West Hartford said he supports marijuana legalization, as long as it is done in a thoughtful and deliberate manner.
“We gotta realize it’s here and I’m not just talking black market,’’ said Harris, a Democrat who is exploring a run for governor or another statewide post. “I’m talking about our neighbor to the north in Massachusetts. It will probably be in Rhode Island. We need to grapple with this issue… but we have to do it because its good public policy.”
Harris said legalizing marijuana could help end racial disparities in the criminal justice system and shift resources from punishment to treatment.
Micah Welintukonis, an Army veteran from Coventry, also backs the idea.
"So I'm for pot,'' Welintukonis declared in his opening remarks. "If you want to smoke pot at your own home, go ahead. If you want to grow some plants at your own house, grow some plants. I really don't care.''
Prasad Srinivasan, a physician and a Republican state representative from Glastonbury, backs the state’s medical marijuana program. But said he has serious public safety and public health concerns about the rush to legalize marijuana.
Police officers have no accurate way to measure whether a driver who smoked marijuana is impaired, he said.
“Do we have a way to monitor THC levels?’ Srinivasan said. “Not in 2017. We have to look the implications.”
Advocates of marijuana legalization say it would bring some much-needed tax money to a state that continues to struggle with deficits. Drew said taxing marijuana, establishing tolls and boosting the income tax rate for top earners would be linchpins of his economic policy.
But Srinivasan said the tax revenue marijuana sales would generate — the legislature’s nonpartisan Office of Fiscal Analysis puts the annual number at $61 million — isn’t enough to overcome his objections.
“That’s the revenue that is going to come into a $20 billion budget,’’ he said. “That’s one myth that we have: that this huge, huge war chest is going to open up the moment we legalize.’’
The debate had a freewheeling, casual feel — before it began, candidates determined who would answer the final question first by playing “rock, paper, scissors.”
Srinivasan noted that the audience of more than 100 people consisted mostly of people who back legalization and he thanked them for not booing him.
In addition to public policy issues related to marijuana legalization, the candidates were also asked to assess the state’s medical marijuana program.
Harris, as consumer protection commissioner, helped establish the program and said he takes enormous pride in its success. “This program is providing another really effective health care choice to people in our communities,’’ he said. In addition, he said, the program has reduced the stigma associated with marijuana, helping to pave the way for a policy debate on the merits of legalization.
The candidates were also asked to provide solutions on how to address the opioid epidemic. Drew said one of the first steps is to stop treating addicts as criminals.
“Right now we’re not treating people enough,’’ he said. “We’re putting people back out on the street after 30 days when they need continued treatment, it’s no wonder that we’re failing.”
Harris said the Department of Consumer Protection has taken a number of steps to monitor opioids. But, he added, “we cannot have this conversation unless we get our arms around the budget crisis. We were down 50 people at consumer protection and had to figure out how to do more with less,’’ he said.
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