A bill to legalize and regulate the sale of recreational marijuana will not see a vote in the Connecticut Senate this legislative session, but student activists are hopeful that policy change could come in the near future.
“We were a lot closer this year than we were last year,” said Jennifer Purdon, president of the University of Connecticut’s Students for Sensible Drug Policy, said.
Purdon said that last year, there was only one public hearing regarding marijuana legalization. This year, there were two - one for Connecticut Senate’s President Pro Tempore Martin M. Looney’s bill, and another for Rep. Melissa Ziobron’s bill in the house.
“The fact that we had two means that there’s a lot more momentum around it,” said Purdon.
Purdon said cannabis legalization is widely supported by Connecticut residents, referencing a 2015 Quinnipiac poll which found 63 percent of Connecticut voters supported legalizing the drug for adults.
But despite positive public opinion and an upswell of nearby states greenlighting recreational cannabis, Connecticut pot proponents still face several challenges in changing state policy.
In all eight states that have legalized cannabis, including nearby Massachusetts and Maine, change followed statewide votes in public ballot initiatives.
But Connecticut, like 23 other states, does not offer public referendums or ballot measures. Purdon said that presents a challenge.
“We have to do everything through the legislature as opposed to being able to pass something through ballot initiative,” she said. “Legislators go with the people who are speaking up, and a lot of that is opponents [of recreational marijuana].”
Even if a pro-pot bill were to make it through both houses of the Connecticut General Assembly, it still might not become law.
Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy has come out against recreational cannabis. Though he has not explicitly said he would veto a bill legalizing marijuana, he has strongly criticized efforts in other states to do so.
He called Massachusetts’ recent decision to legalize cannabis a “mistake” and said he thought Colorado leaders wouldn’t keep it legal if they were given a do-over, as reported in the Hartford Courant.
Malloy supported decriminalization of the drug in 2011 and approved its medical use in 2012, but has said recreational legalization is a step too far. “I didn't say a single thing good about marijuana, except in medical terms,” he told the Hartford Courant.
Purdon said she thinks Connecticut’s current laws are too harsh. Even though cannabis is decriminalized, those caught with less than a half-ounce of the drug can still face fines and suspension of their driver's license.
“If they have more than a half ounce of cannabis, they get charged, and that drug charge means they could lose their financial aid,” she said.
Malloy has announced he will not run for reelection in 2018, but it’s too early to say who might replace him as governor, let alone what their stance on marijuana prohibition will be.
No matter what happens in Connecticut, additional challenges for cannabis reform activists are emerging from President Donald Trump’s justice department.
White House Spokesman Sean Spicer said at a press conference in February that “greater enforcement” of federal marijuana laws can be expected under Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Marijuana remains a Schedule I drug under federal law - the same category as heroin - but Obama’s justice department took a lenient approach to enforcing that law in states that chose to legalize.
Spicer’s comments appear to suggest Trump may reverse that precedent.
But Purdon said she isn’t overly-concerned with Spicer’s remarks.
“I think it’s kind of - they’re playing it up more than they will actually enforce it,” she said.
Plus, she said, she doesn’t want to let that possibility distract from reform efforts within the state.
“We want to move forward,” she said. “I think we’re moving in the right direction and there’s definitely been a lot of progress.”
Charlie Smart is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org.