Column: Don't fear it, legalize it

In this Feb. 26, 2016 photograph, a marijuana pipe is nearby, as former U.S. Marine, Mike Whiter answers a question about his marijuana use to treat post-traumatic stress disorder, at his home in Philadelphia. A growing number of states are weighing whether to legalize marijuana to treat PTSD. While the research has been contradictory and limited, some former members of the military say marijuana helps them manage their anxiety, insomnia and nightmares. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)

It’s no secret that legalizing recreational marijuana in Connecticut is pretty low on the priority list of the state legislature, but a few Democrats have been trying. With budget troubles growing, job creators leaving and prescription drug and heroin related deaths on the rise, legalizing recreational marijuana for adult consumption seems much more common sense than Governor Malloy is letting on. 

In 2014, Malloy said in an appearance on CNN’s “State of the Union” that decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana and approving medical marijuana programs are “about as far as we go.” Malloy continued, saying, “Let’s not be enticed down that road because of money,” clearly in reference to Connecticut’s continuing revenue and budgeting issues. Even in recent weeks, Governor Malloy has spoken out against marijuana legalization in town hall meetings on the state budget, saying legalizing for recreational use is not “in our best interest.” But what then, Governor Malloy, is really in Connecticut’s best interest? 

The Hartford Courant reported last month that the number of overdose deaths increased to 720 people in 2015, up 27 percent for heroin and higher for drugs like fentanyl. States that already have ended prohibition on recreational marijuana use - and those with plans to - strongly consider the change a way to drive out illegal drug dealers, prevent underage use and possession, better handle inebriated drivers, improve research and education on drug use and its effects, reduce the overcrowding of prisons and excessive ticketing in low-income areas, and ultimately make communities safer by reprioritizing law enforcement efforts and lowering overdose deaths.

Indeed, many of Malloy’s likely concerns, which might include child-safe packaging, a ban on public use and more thorough government oversight, are being covered and introduced by other Connecticut Democratic lawmakers including the University of Connecticut community’s Mansfield Representative, Gregory Haddad. Connecticut has taken a measured approach to marijuana, and so politicians looking to protect and preserve their reputations shouldn’t turn away from ending prohibition out of fear or disdain.

Governor Malloy would prefer not to discuss the relation between refusing to open up an entirely new market for legalized recreational marijuana and Connecticut’s looming budget and jobs issues, but that argument is getting harder and harder to justify. Last year, Colorado’s marijuana business generated $135 million in taxes and fees, and sold almost $1 billion in product. One report on Colorado in 2014 found just two dispensaries creating 280 jobs with an average wage of $17 an hour and 16,000 people licensed to work in the industry. Traffic fatality and crime rates are down, as are arrests and state judicial costs.

Malloy’s views on this specific area of drug policy also reflect a noticeably less progressive stance than held by a majority of Connecticut voters. In March of last year, one Quinnipiac Poll showed 63 percent of voters were in favor of allowing adults to possess small amounts of marijuana for recreational use. And with similar levels of support, other states have been moving much faster to become the first in the northeast to end prohibition.

Massachusetts may see a ballot initiative in November, and Vermont’s State Senate recently voted in February to end marijuana prohibition and implement a system for taxation and regulation of sales. As the Vermont bill moves to the House with support from Democratic Governor Peter Shumlin, Connecticut residents face the threat of seeing another New England state draw in tourists and movers while our state grows less appealing, more expensive, and more poorly funded.

With ten Democratic representatives sponsoring the legalization bill in Connecticut, the issue may gain traction. Politicians like Governor Malloy seem too hesitant to embrace the drug policy reforms needed to fix America’s failed war on drugs, as if doing so should even still be considered taboo in 2016. Connecticut residents know the impact punitive drug laws can have on communities, especially in low-income areas and communities of color.

Regardless of lukewarm politics by state and national leaders, the voice of Connecticut voters on ending prohibition could help provide new, unexpected revenue in a time of need, and ease the penalties and legal costs imposed on citizens, courts and communities to enforce prohibition laws.


Bennett Cognato is a contributor to The Daily Campus opinion section. He can be reached via email at bennett.cognato@uconn.edu.