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Speaker Pledges Passage Of Marijuana Legalization Bill In Special Session

Mark Pazniokas
CT Mirror
The House leaders: GOP Minority Leader Vincent Candelora, left, and Speaker Matt Ritter.

House Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, pledged that the House will pass a bill legalizing recreational marijuana in a special session after failing to negotiate a limit to the debate that might have allowed passage before the annual session reached its adjournment deadline of midnight Wednesday.

The special session will be called soon, most likely in the next week or two — a less aggressive time frame than he suggested Wednesday morning, when he still was trying to get House Minority Leader Vincent J. Candelora, R-North Branford, to accept a limit on debate of the 297-page bill finished Saturday night and narrowly passed by the Senate early Tuesday.

“We will be voting in the next week on that bill — could be today, could be tomorrow, could be Friday, could be Saturday, could be Sunday,” Ritter said in a morning briefing. We will be getting that bill passed.”

Later, the speaker said he offered House Republicans the opportunity to run bills they wanted if they would keep the marijuana debate under 18 hours. The refusal and the need for a special session were not unexpected.

Passage on Wednesday would have required one of two unlikely scenarios: Either an agreement by the Republican minority for limited debate, or Democrats to pass a motion to end debate, a breach of the tradition of unlimited debate.

Ritter, the son of a former speaker, recoils at the notion of stifling the minority party with a motion to call the question and end debate. Unlike the Congress, where a super-majority is necessary to move business in the Senate, the majority party in Connecticut rules by a simple majority.

Candelora said he saw no grounds to agree to an abbreviated debate on a major public policy change — not only the legalization of marijuana but the complexities of licensing, regulation, social equity and consumer protection.

“It’s a big bill where there’s a huge philosophical divide, not just on the legalization issue but how the state of Connecticut is doing it,” Candelora said. “And so I just think it merits a full day of debate in special session.”

Candelora said the GOP minority cannot be credibly blamed for dilatory tactics, given the inability of the majority to reach a deal and produce a draft of the bill until Saturday, leaving the measure to compete in the final days with passage of a budget.

“It’s not a matter of killing the bill,” Candelora said. “But it’s just a bill that never should have been done in the Senate on Monday, two days before a session was going to end.”

Debate did not begin in the Senate until Monday, with passage on a 19-17 vote coming at 2 a.m. Tuesday.

“I think it’s poor planning on the Senate leadership’s part for putting the House in that position,” Candelora said.

If Ritter had opened debate Wednesday on the bill, he would have run a significant risk of one of his members making a motion to end the debate.

“He doesn’t control what motions members make,” Candelora said.

House Majority Leader Jason Rojas, R-East Hartford, who led the working group that produced the bill over the weekend, said he understood that the GOP had ideas for changes, but he said they could have come forward earlier.

“I know they’re concerned about how late the bill came out — I guess I would share my concern about how late they chose to come to the table with some of the ideas they have about a bill that’s been out for six months now,” Rojas said, a reference to roughly how long ago the original bill was filed.

But the key provisions have taken months to negotiate, primarily the definitions of “social-equity applicants” for cultivation and retail licenses. Preferences for social-equity applicants are intended to push some of the economic benefits of legal marijuana toward communities disproportionately harmed by the war on drugs.

As first reported by CT Mirror, the legalization bill was hastily rewritten Monday night to strike language that would have given preference for a cultivation license to at least one former medical marijuana investor if he partnered with an urban applicant lacking expertise and capital.

Candelora said the provision appeared written with one person or entity in mind, and the fact that it was stricken from the bill before passage in the Senate should not end conversations in the General Assembly about how and why it happened.

“Somehow we are expected, because it was stripped out of the bill, to just move along — ‘nothing to see here.’ And I think that all the leaders should come forward and call for an investigation to see why that happened,” Candelora said.

He faulted the Lamont administration’s vetting of the bill, but the governor’s spokesman, Max Reiss, said the administration’s lawyers did raise objections when they saw a draft that did not reflect, in their view, the negotiated deal.

“It became apparent that this was something that the administration did not support, and that this piece was not consistent with the equity provisions as we knew them to be and as we had discussed them, which is then what led to the demand from our administration to remove it from the bill,” Reiss said.

While the Senate voted Wednesday night to adopt the $46.4 billion budget approved by the House, the legislature already is committed to returning in a special session to adopt a mix of technical and substantive bills necessary to implement the budget.

The cannabis bill passed by the Senate with the support of Gov. Ned Lamont would allow the purchase and possession of marijuana at age 21. If passed by the House, the bill would legalize possession of 1.5 ounces, plus another 5 ounces in the home or a locked vehicle, beginning Jan. 1, 2022.

Connecticut has a thriving medical marijuana industry, with four licensed growers and a network of retail dispensaries limited to holders of medical prescriptions. Legalization of adult recreational use has been seen as inevitable, with the state bracketed by two states with legal marijuana, Massachusetts and New York.

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