As states ranging from Massachusetts to Colorado have legalized recreational marijuana since 2012, the University’s home state of Connecticut now finds itself embroiled in the very same debate. On Monday, State Senator Ed Gomes hosted a town hall at Housatonic Community College in Bridgeport to discuss the costs and benefits of recreational marijuana. State legislatures introduced four bills to legalize recreational marijuana this year, and Middletown’s own government has not been exempt from these discussions.
Local officials are weighing a number of competing considerations as they deliberate on Middletown’s role in the legalization effort.
Connecticut Police Chiefs Association President John Salvatore told the New Haven Register in January that the organization has concerns about enforcing recreational marijuana laws.
“That’s largely from what we’re witnessing from other states,” Salvatore said. “This is definitely a concern for us…. There’s no way for us to prove that a person was under the influence of marijuana when they’re pulled over, and if it’s legal, then the question is well, how to we prove that in court?”
Another issue that concerns the local government is any impact legalization may have on their ability to manage instances of opioid abuse in the Middletown community. Mayor Dan Drew said that his office has worked with the Community Health Center and the Chamber of Congress, which runs the Middlesex County Absence Abuse Substance Council, to combat opioid addiction in Middletown.
“We’ve seen a lot of families affected here,” Drew said. “We’ve seen a lot of people overdose, some of which, some people have been saved and others have lost their lives. It’s a terrible tragedy, and I know people whose families have personally been affected.”
Middlesex County Substance Abuse Action Council member and Drug & Alcohol counselor Bob Santangelo said that the University community itself does not have an opioid addiction problem.
“[The influence] is so low impact…but it doesn’t impact [Wesleyan’s student body] very much,” Santangelo said. “I live right by campus, and I can tell you.”
While Drew acknowledged that the opioid epidemic effects the Middletown community, he does not believe that there is any relationship between opioid abuse and usage of recreational marijuana, nor did he suggest that legalization would hamper his efforts to manage the opioid issue.
“I think the genesis of the opioid problem has less to do with marijuana and more to do with the fact that prescription narcotics and opioid derived prescription narcotics are prescribed very, very frequently,” Drew said. “People get addicted after medical procedures. When they can’t fulfill another prescription, very often the only place to turn is heroin. And I think that’s the biggest source of the opioid epidemic. I really doubt that recreational marijuana is going to have any tangible impact on the opioid epidemic at large.”
Drew is a supporter of the effort to legalize recreational marijuana in Connecticut. He believes that legalization offers considerable benefits for the state and would overturn an anachronistic policy.
“I think it makes sense from a standpoint of generating revenue for the state,” Drew said. “I think that the effects of marijuana in the aggregate certainly than the effects of alcohol. I think the prohibition on marijuana is exactly that. It’s a form of modern prohibition, and it leads to a number of other problems. I believe [it] probably creates more problems than it solves.”
Connecticut voters appear to agree. In 2015, a Quinnipiac University Poll found that 63 percent of Connecticut voters support marijuana legalization.
The Argus asked President Roth about his assessment concerning legalization in multiple interviews, but he did not comment at length.
One anonymous University junior argued that the effort for legalization was long overdue.
“I think it will be a boon to Middletown’s economy,” the student stated. “It’s happening in states all over the country, it’s time Connecticut followed suit.”
Mayor Drew shared this student’s sentiment, citing the other states who had legalized recreational marijuana and popular support that legalization enjoys in Connecticut.
“I think there’s been overwhelming support for it,” Drew said. “Sure, there are some people that are opposed to it, for certainly very good and legitimate reasons, and you know they have important points to bring up. But for the most part I think people are enthusiastic about the possibility of recreational marijuana for a variety of reasons. It eases up law enforcement resources, generates revenue and doesn’t have the widespread negative health impacts that alcohol has.”
The legalization effort still has plenty of detractors. Santangelo and his fellow council member and Superintendent of Middletown middle schools Dr. Patricia Charles are both opposed to legalizing recreational marijuana.
“Attention, memory, and learning are all negatively affected by marijuana use,” Charles wrote in an email to The Argus. “The greater the frequency of marijuana use, the greater the harm to cognitive ability, success in school, and potentially careers and aspirations later in life.”
Charles is also worried about the influence that legalization could have on young students in the area.
“As an educator and superintendent, I also worry about the message legalization sends to students,” Charles wrote. “Although it will still be illegal for purchase by students under 21, marijuana will still be available illegally and the message our youth internalizes is then, ‘It must be ok.’”
Charles, unlike Drew, said that she believes there is a direct link between marijuana and opioid use or addiction.
“However, youths who smoke marijuana early in their lives are more susceptible to addiction of other substances later in life,” Charles wrote. “Youth that take opioids illegally are found to use marijuana at higher rates.”
Connecticut marijuana laws have transformed rapidly in the past seven years. Governor Dan Malloy signed a bill decriminalizing marijuana in Connecticut in 2011. Since then, possession of a half-ounce or less of marijuana is categorized as a civil violation with a fine of up to $150. Connecticut’s medical marijuana program has expanded since it was introduced in the state in June of 2012. At that time, the laws that governed the program were more restrictive than in other states: minors were excluded from participating (Connecticut was the only medical marijuana state that made that exception), fewer illnesses qualified for eligibility and the state maintained less dispensaries compared to peer states. In January, the Department of Consumer Protection approved three new dispensaries, and the state legislature expanded the list of approved conditions in the state’s medical marijuana program from eleven to seventeen. There are now nine marijuana dispensaries in Connecticut, the closest to the University campus is Arrow Alternative Care in Hartford. In October, Governor Malloy signed HB 5450, which allowed minors to gain access to these dispensaries if they acquire two physician’s certifications and their parents’ consent.
The Middletown Press has traced the impact of the legalization effort on the Middletown community. Last October, they published a profile of former Middletown resident Tracy Helin, a marijuana user for 27 years who died in August of 2016 after battling testicular cancer. Helin was a passionate advocate for medical marijuana in Connecticut. He testified at a hearing on medical marijuana in front of the General Assembly in 2016, conveying his own experience with cannabis oil and criticizing the cost of the program, which he believed acts as de facto discrimination against economically disadvantaged groups.
Currently, in 2017, the legislative battle to legalize recreational marijuana is being spurred by the introduction of four bills in the state legislature’s General Assembly. The bills are listed as follows; SB 11: An Act Concerning the Legalization and Taxation of the Retail Sale of Marijuana, introduced by Sen. Martin Looney; HB 5314: An Act Concerning the Regulation and Taxation of the Retail Sale and Cultivation of Marijuana for Use by Persons Twenty-One Years of Age or Older, introduced by Rep. Melissa Ziobron; HB 5539: An Act Concerning the Legalization, Taxation and Regulation of the Retail Sale and Use of Marijuana, introduced by Candelaria; HB 6518: An Act Concerning the Retail Sale of Marijuana, introduced by Rep. Toni Walker.
The Connecticut Coalition to Regulate Marijuana (CCRM) has led the effort on the legal front. The organization that describes themselves as a “group of like-minded organizations and individuals who are committed to ending the failed policy of marijuana prohibition in the Constitution State,” and they are funded by the Marijuana Policy Project, the largest marijuana policy organization in the United States. The CCRM projects that legalization could yield 19,373 new jobs for the state and produce revenues of $100 million annually.
“The debate over marijuana regulation isn’t about whether marijuana should exist or whether people should use it,” the CCRM states on their website.“The reality is, even after decades of prohibition, marijuana is used by large numbers of people and is clearly here to stay. Given that reality, the question is how Connecticut can most effectively regulate marijuana — ensuring the rights and freedoms of responsible consumers while working to reduce the harms of both marijuana use and our marijuana policies.”
Regardless of what the future holds for legalized recreational marijuana in Connecticut (and Middletown), discussion on the bills will move forward in the state legislature, and could be implemented as early as 2018. What their economic and social impact on the Middletown community will be is an open question.