Why Members of Lamont’s Cannabis Equity Group See His Bill as a Betrayal – CT Examiner

Late last year, as Gov. Ned Lamont prepared his push for legalizing and taxing recreational marijuana in the upcoming legislative session, his office gathered dozens of predominantly nonwhite activists, legislators and community leaders to form a cannabis equity discussion group, which met weekly via Zoom for two months. 

The group discussed everything from equitable revenue allocation, and processes for expunging criminal records, to licensing that would be inclusive of Black and Brown entrepreneurs. Dozens of hours of work culminated in a set of recommendations delivered to the governor, all centered around how best to legalize cannabis in an equitable fashion, in the weeks before the governor was to announce his bill. 

Lamont unveiled his proposed legislation, which he framed in his address as a form of social justice, as part of his Feb. 10 budget announcement, saying that tax revenues would go to the communities “hardest hit by the war on drugs” and highlighting his legislation’s automated erasure of criminal records. 

“I don’t know of any other state in the nation that has tried this,” Arulampalam said. “The people who are closest to the pain have been part of crafting what this social equity plan looks like.” 

Arunan Arulampalam, deputy commissioner of the Department of Consumer Protection, said in a press conference Wednesday morning that input from the discussion group was vital to finding solutions around social equity. 

“I don’t know of any other state in the nation that has tried this,” Arulampalam said. “The people who are closest to the pain have been part of crafting what this social equity plan looks like.” 

But members of the advisory group tell a different story, and warn that the bill falls so short on matters of equity that the entire legislation legalizing recreational marijuana is now in jeopardy. 

‘The kiddie table’ 

Jason Ortiz, president of the Minority Cannabis Business Association, a nonprofit serving entrepreneurs of color in the marijuana industry, said he had looked forward to contributing to legislation that would create an inclusive recreational marijuana industry in Connecticut, but in an interview with CT Examiner, he said his experience with the advisory group fell far short of expectations. He also expressed frustration with how the governor’s office has referenced the advisory group as key decision-makers in the process of writing the bill. 

“There’s a difference between being at the drafting table and being at the kiddie table,” Ortiz said. “They knew they had to have people of color involved in some capacity, but they didn’t take us seriously enough to honor our recommendations. The advisory group didn’t write this bill, we wrote recommendations and saw them get promptly ignored.” 

“The governor has a bunch of white men deciding Brown people policy,” Ortiz said. “Not only did they bring a group of people of color together just to ignore us, but they didn’t bring any of us into the process of drafting the actual bill.” 

Ortiz said he had hoped that the discussion group would be included in the conversation with the governor’s office, sharing recommendations, receiving feedback, and working together to come up with a realistic, equitable proposal. Instead, Ortiz said that the governor’s office thanked them for their recommendations, but did not provide any feedback or open up a dialogue about what would or would not actually make it into the legislation. 

From Ortiz’s perspective, the equity discussion group was primarily just a way to cover for the lack of racial diversity among the actual writers of the legislation. 

“The governor has a bunch of white men deciding Brown people policy,” Ortiz said. “Not only did they bring a group of people of color together just to ignore us, but they didn’t bring any of us into the process of drafting the actual bill.” 

Harris, responding to the complaint, said the characterization is inaccurate, and that the input from the discussion group was integral in the creation of the governor’s proposed legislation. 

“This was not just a bunch of white males crafting the bill,” Harris said. “The governor’s cannabis equity discussion group was made up of members of Black and Brown communities from around the state. We understand that this is not something that can be just decided by a few people in the governor’s office.” 

“There is always frustration in the legislative process about what is or isn’t in a bill,” Harris said. “The important thing is that our bill lays out a commitment to equity and a framework to achieve that equity, and we expect that there will be more meat put on the bones throughout the session. While the bill might not have all of the details that people want, it has that commitment to equity.” 

But rather than including the specific recommendations of the equity group, the current plan leaves most of those details – like prioritizing licenses for people most affected by laws prohibiting marijuana – to be ironed out through a future study. 

Harris said he hopes that a focus on the details of the legislation does not overshadow the larger focus on equity present throughout. 

“There is always frustration in the legislative process about what is or isn’t in a bill,” Harris said. “The important thing is that our bill lays out a commitment to equity and a framework to achieve that equity, and we expect that there will be more meat put on the bones throughout the session. While the bill might not have all of the details that people want, it has that commitment to equity.” 

State Rep. Josh Elliott, D-Hamden, one of the legislators most involved in the discussion group, also said that he found the end result disheartening. 

“It seems like the governor’s intent behind having this task force was just to say he did it, not to actually let it guide the legislation,” Elliott said. “The bill makes it clear that he has completely disregarded months of work figuring out what a strong equitable framework looks like, and that’s frustrating. You never really know how much someone is listening, but in this case, we do know, because it’s written in a 163-page bill that essentially ignores the work we did.” 

‘The cart before the horse’ 

The Office of the Governor has so far justified the legislation’s lack of details by underscoring a plan to establish an equity commission and to organize a subsequent equity study. 

According to language in the legislation, the commission would oversee a study into how to target revenue to those disproportionately harmed by the prohibition of marijuana and how best to license cannabis producers to ensure equal access to the industry. After the study’s conclusion, the legislature could pass those recommendations into law. 

Ortiz said that passing legalization before coming to an agreement on specific equity components puts the entire project at risk, and removes a key incentive for addressing the issue of equity.

“If you craft a bill where the equity study has to go first, it creates the opposite incentive, where big businesses want equity to get started as soon as possible because then they get to start making money as soon as possible. If you just flip the timeline, it radically changes everything.” 

“If certain parts of legalization were delayed until after the equity study, I might support this bill a lot more,” Ortiz said. “If you craft a bill where the equity study has to go first, it creates the opposite incentive, where big businesses want equity to get started as soon as possible because then they get to start making money as soon as possible. If you just flip the timeline, it radically changes everything.” 

Instead, Ortiz supports a bill proposed by State Sen. Robyn Porter, D-New Haven, that would establish a similar equity task force, but would require that it report back before the industry is established.

“We want a task force to look at equity and report back, and we want those findings to be what drives the bill and where the revenue goes,” Porter said. “We can’t put the cart before the horse.” 

Where the revenue goes 

While progressives hope to send the state revenue from marijuana sales to communities disproportionately impacted by cannabis prohibition, Lamont chose to use much of the revenue to help solve the state’s budget woes. 

His bill allocates half of the revenue toward addressing one of the state’s budget challenges, the PILOT program, which reimburses municipalities for tax-exempt properties. The other half of revenues goes to the state’s designated distressed municipalities — the 25 cities and towns in Connecticut with the lowest incomes, highest unemployment rates, and lowest rates of education. 

That decision to allocate funding to PILOT has received little support from lawmakers. 

“He’s subsidizing not having the will to raise revenue in an equitable fashion,” said State Rep. Anne Hughes,D-Easton, co-chair of the Progressive Caucus, who has called on the governor to raise taxes on the wealthy to plug budget shortfalls. 

Marijuana revenues should be more intentionally targeted, said House Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, who nevertheless agreed that the state should “step up and do something on PILOT [because] the state owes that money, and we can afford a good portion from our general fund.” 

Porter and members of the legislature’s Progressive Caucus expressed particular frustration that cannabis revenues were directed toward programs that would otherwise be paid for out of the general fund. 

“He’s subsidizing not having the will to raise revenue in an equitable fashion,” said State Rep. Anne Hughes,D-Easton, co-chair of the Progressive Caucus, who has called on the governor to raise taxes on the wealthy to plug budget shortfalls. 

In his budget address, Lamont highlighted the other half of the revenue, which goes to distressed municipalities, as a clear prioritization of social justice. Harris said that while the long-term hope is that the equity commission’s study helps target funds to those most in need, the Distressed Municipalities list is a temporary proxy for “providing money to municipalities that have been most ravaged by the war on drugs.” 

“When I hear providing revenue to municipalities, to someone like me, that sounds like more money for the police, which only hurts the communities that have already been hurt by prohibition of cannabis,” Porter said. 

“The governor believes that these municipalities need dollars to give the residents impacted unjustly by cannabis enforcement relief on their taxes and increased services, including providing for equity programs,” Harris said. 

Still, legislators and activists questioned whether the funds would actually materialize in a way that would help people most affected by drug enforcement, or if funds might instead be lost to corruption or used for law enforcement and general budgetary needs.

“When I hear providing revenue to municipalities, to someone like me, that sounds like more money for the police, which only hurts the communities that have already been hurt by prohibition of cannabis,” Porter said. 

Harris acknowledged that there are no strings attached to the money after it is given to municipalities, and no part of the bill requires that cities and towns use the money for any specific programs. 

Ritter said he was concerned that the money would not be used to provide for those most in need, and that he would not support the money “just going into their general fund for operating expenses.” 

“These are distressed municipalities, but they’re also desperate municipalities,” Hughes said. “There needs to be stronger anti-corruption guardrails in terms of implementation, we can’t just throw the money at municipalities.” 

“These are distressed municipalities, but they’re also desperate municipalities,” Hughes said. “There needs to be stronger anti-corruption guardrails in terms of implementation, we can’t just throw the money at municipalities.” 

Hughes also noted that while the money would go to many municipalities that are home to large Black and Brown communities, none of the 25 distressed cities and towns are currently led by Black mayors, leaving the decision-making on spending predominantly with white leaders. 

And while the list of towns designated for additional funding includes Hartford, Bridgeport, and New Haven, as well as surrounding cities, where the state’s Black population is most concentrated, half of the designated municipalities are less than five percent Black — less than the state average of 10.7 percent.

“It’s just not a specific enough metric,” Ortiz said.  

‘From a black market to a white market’ 

In trying to anticipate what the recreational marijuana industry will look like in Connecticut, lawmakers and activists can turn to a close precedent — the state’s burgeoning medical marijuana industry. 

Medical cannabis was legalized in 2012, and in the nine years since, the state has licensed a small number of growers and providers to handle the business. None of those dispensaries are Black-owned, Porter said. 

“The governor’s legislation takes the black market and turns it into the white market,” Porter said. “It’s just transferring the power from the streets to white corporations. It’s white millionaires and billionaires who have the capital to buy into this. This bill is going to let white people capitalize and gain millions in an industry that has decimated and destroyed black people.” 

While the governor’s office said that the equity commission will develop guidelines for equity licenses, it emphasized that getting the medical side of the industry up and running and bringing in revenue was necessary to start the process.

“The governor’s legislation takes the black market and turns it into the white market,” Porter said. “It’s just transferring the power from the streets to white corporations. It’s white millionaires and billionaires who have the capital to buy into this. This bill is going to let white people capitalize and gain millions in an industry that has decimated and destroyed black people.” 

“To fund any sort of equity program, you need revenue, and so this creates a system in which medical marijuana producers get up and running, and that revenue can then be used for equity,” Arulampalam said. “Do we want to put a hold on licensing so we can give a few licensees a short-term advantage? Or do we want to create a plan that allows applicants to succeed in the long run and revenue to come into these communities in the short term that could have a real impact right now?” 

Arulampalam said that looking at precedent from other states, simply providing a few equity licenses at the outset did not end up creating a more diverse market in the long run. He also said that the equity commission could place requirements on larger producers to hire people of color and create incubator programs, so that preexisting producers could become more diverse and provide training to those interested in entering the businesses. 

‘Is this even legalization?’ 

Mike Lawlor, a criminal justice professor and former Connecticut state representative, shared data in a press conference Wednesday showing that in the last year, more than 7,500 people in Connecticut were arrested and charged with marijuana possession, more than 10 percent of the 70,000 criminal arrests in the state. Lawlor highlighted this data to show that legalizing cannabis would lighten the workload of the criminal justice system, and that it would also help lessen the racially-disparate impact of drug enforcement. 

However, some advocates questioned whether the bill’s limits for possession actually create meaningful change. The legislation only legalizes possession of 1.5 ounces of marijuana, and lays out fines for possession of larger quantities, and misdemeanor charges for possession of more than four ounces. 

“It’s not like you’re going to wind up in jail if you’ve got two ounces or two and a half,” D’Agostino said. “There are fines and there are misdemeanors still because we need to regulate the black market.” 

“For officers to guess whether someone has an arrestable amount of marijuana just creates another layer of selective enforcement,” Ortiz said. “The bill also doesn’t expunge any charges for sales or cultivation. Is this even really legalization?” 

State Rep. D’Agostino, D-Hamden, emphasized that the bill does reduce penalties, even if it does not fully eliminate them. 

“It’s not like you’re going to wind up in jail if you’ve got two ounces or two and a half,” D’Agostino said. “There are fines and there are misdemeanors still because we need to regulate the black market.” 

‘If it’s not done right, we don’t want it’ 

Kebra Smith-Bolden runs CannaHealth, which certifies qualifying patients for Connecticut medical marijuana certificates, and is also the only Black-owned marijuana business in Connecticut.

Smith-Bolden said that while the invitation to participate in the governor’s advisory group meant a lot to her, little seems to have come from the meetings.  

“The bill treats equity like a handout, when it should be the entire framework for the legislation,” Smith-Bolden said. “If equity conversations don’t start with reconciling our past, you’re always going to miss the heart of what equity means. It’s always going to seem like they’re piece-mealing equity to communities of color.”  

Porter and Hughes agree, and say that passing the bill as it stands would be worse than not passing legalization at all. 

“If we don’t act now, we could lose the majority, or end up with an even more conservative governor, and that’s a much worse position to be in,” Elliott said. “But a legalization bill is going to pass, and there’s no chance in hell the governor vetoes it, even if it’s different from his bill. So we should work to make this bill as equitable as possible.” 

While Elliott shares many of their concerns with the governor’s proposal, he worries that “letting the perfect be the enemy of the good” could dash legalization’s hopes entirely. He says that he would still vote for the bill as it stands. 

“If we don’t act now, we could lose the majority, or end up with an even more conservative governor, and that’s a much worse position to be in,” Elliott said. “But a legalization bill is going to pass, and there’s no chance in hell the governor vetoes it, even if it’s different from his bill. So we should work to make this bill as equitable as possible.” 

Elliott believes that a version of the bill better aligned with the task force’s recommendations on equity would have the votes to pass, and that the governor’s proposal “makes it seem as though Ned has no idea where the legislature is in terms of this issue.” 

Leadership in the legislature appears less confident. 

State Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, said that all of the cannabis legalization bills need to be “pulled apart and put back together,” and that there is still “a lot of work to be done” before the bill passes. 

“This is far from a given right now,” Ritter said. “We need to start taking all of these different ideas and putting them together so we can have an actual bill to rally votes behind.” 

While Smith-Bolden hopes to see legalization pass this session, she said she cannot support the governor’s bill, and would rather the state not legalize at all unless it is done equitably. 

“If it’s not done right, we don’t want it,” Smith-Bolden said. “In the Black and Brown community, so many things have been stolen from us and have become corporate and then we’re left behind. It’s always like, oh, we’ll come back to that. History has proven that if we don’t get it right from the beginning, we’re not going to get it right afterwards.”

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