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Opinion

An Interview with Jason Ortiz, Connecticut Marijuana Legalization Advocate

Although Connecticut decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana in 2011, recreational use of the drug remains prohibited in the state. However, recent polls suggest that 71% of Connecticut’s voters are in favour of legalizing marijuana, and political debate on the matter has intensified as Massachusetts commenced commercial cannabis sale just over a week ago. What does this mean for the future of marijuana policy in Connecticut? In this interview, The Politic sits down with Jason Ortiz, an advocate for marijuana legalization based in Connecticut, to talk about his journey as an advocate, the fight to legalize marijuana within our state, and how Connecticut can do it right.

Jason Ortiz: Ok, so just quickly my name is Jason Ortiz. J-A-S-O-N O-R-T-I-Z. I wear a number of different hats when it comes to marijuana policy. The most important one is I am the Vice President of the Minority Cannabis Business Association (MCBA) – that is a 501(c)(6) trade association that is national and advocates to get more people of color into the cannabis industry as owners, employees and as consumers.

The Politic: Ok, if we could maybe start off if you wouldn’t mind telling me what inspired you to get involved in the fight to legalize marijuana in Connecticut?

Jason: How I really got involved was actually when I was in high school I was arrested for possession of marijuana, and found that part of our current drug policies are harsher than makes sense. I was suspended for 45 school days for simple possession as a minor when I was a tenth-grader.

That was my first interaction with the law, and also just sort of how bureaucracies handle punishment. I was going through the list of different punishment for different actions, and I realized that both fighting and possession of alcohol were between three and five days suspension, and marijuana was 45 mandatory. And so that immediately showed like “why is this something that is so dramatically more penalized?” And then I had forty five days of schools to do research to find out what the hell this is all about! [laughs]

I was lucky that I had such a strong family that encouraged me to view it as a learning experience. And I did. I learned about the War on Drugs and the school-to-prison pipeline.  When I learned about those two terms in high school, I remember being affected by it. That was sort of the beginning of my activism. And then from there I went on to go to college at the University of Connecticut, and I joined an organisation called Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP).

Later I actually realized that it was only due to the work of SSDP that I was able to go to college. They were working on a bill, or provision, called the Higher Education Act Aid Elimination Penalty. And that was a provision in the higher education funding bill at the time [in the 2000s] that said, if you had been convicted of a drug offense, you are not eligible for financial aid. That was making thousands – if not millions – of young people not able to access higher education. But in the time between I graduated high school and went to college, SSDP changed that law, and made it that you only got denied financial aid if you got caught while on financial aid. So anyone who got caught while outside of college was no longer penalized.

And I was that person. I was that person that got caught in high school. And I didn’t realize this until my third or fourth year at UConn, when kind of putting the dates together I thought “Wow, organizers made it possible for me to be here, organizing today”. And so that’s when I thought it really matters that people do what they need to do to change laws they think are wrong.

Wow. Okay so I guess you’ve had quite the experience with both sides of the problem. And what about your involvement in the MCBA?

I was doing not cannabis related work for a few years when the Ohio bill came up. It was going to give ownership of the industry to like ten specific entities. The Ohio bill is pretty famous for going up in flames in a rather spectacular fashion [laughs]. But it was the first time I saw a bill that was in direct opposition to how I thought the marijuana industry should develop, as it was saying that a tiny, tiny, tiny number of people are going to be allowed to participate.

That’s when I reconnected with an SSDP buddy Shaleen Title, who is now the Cannabis Commissioner of Massachusetts – but at the time was an advocate. And so I asked her, “what is like the opposite, what is the most grassroots legalization bill that’s ever been written?” And she said “Honestly, there isn’t one.” And then we were like, “okay, in that case, let’s write one.”

So we got together and started talking about how we would write a legalization bill if we didn’t have to compromise and could do exactly what we wanted to. And that’s when she introduced me to Jesce Horton and the folks at the Minority Cannabis Business Association.

Once I joined that board I started out as a policy director. My main mission was to draft that model legislation, and we did. That was sort of the crown jewel. [Now, as] Vice President, I work more on organizational development than direct policy development.

I would like to just touch on decriminalization. The difference between marijuana legalization and decriminalization can be a topic of confusion for the layperson. Given that marijuana has been decriminalized in Connecticut, why is it still imperative from a social justice perspective that we legalize marijuana completely?

So a simple possession has been decriminalized but sales have not. There are still thousands of folks out there who could end up in our criminal justice system for selling marijuana – and that includes folks who are only selling to their friends. There still are lots of potential arrests that we would like to avoid that decrim doesn’t solve.

Decrim does not get rid of the black market, and so it doesn’t protect communities and folks from the violence associated with the War on Drugs, when it comes to policing, the organizations distributing marijuana  – and also when it comes to violence from criminal enterprises and folks who are in gangs that settle their disputes through violence.

Legalizing would [also] eliminate the need for regular citizens and civilians to enter the black market to purchase cannabis. And then there’s the consumer benefits. [We can] make sure that folks are taking cannabis that is free of pesticide and mold and pests and things like that. We wanna make sure that this medicine [marijuana] is tested and approved and regulated and clear from unwanted substances.

So, in your opinion, what are some integral components to a bill legalizing marijuana in Connecticut?

I think assessing the effects of the War on Drugs and using the revenue generated by marijuana legalization to heal that damage is the number one thing that we should be considering moving forward. I think the second piece is how do we make sure that communities also affected by the War on Drugs are able to rehabilitate their lives and their communities through economic opportunity in the cannabis industry. Keeping the barriers to entry very low will ensure that everyone has access to the industry, not just people of color, but also low-income white folks that may want to enter the cannabis industry.

I think those are the two big things. The last thing of course is making sure that everyone that was arrested, or anyone currently in prison for cannabis distribution, is released immediately and their record is wiped clean as having served their time and no more criminal records moving forward as far as specifically cannabis-related violations.

Yeah. And, just sort of if you were to take a snapshot–given the current politics within the state of Connecticut–how likely does it look that a possible bill proposing the legalization of marijuana is progressive on the social justice front?

That will be determined in large part by the outcome of the election[s] in November. I think if you look to other states however, progressive legislation has been passed. [California and Maryland] are expunging records and releasing people from prison, Oregon is also releasing people from prison and expunging records. Massachusetts has a number of options, including a co-operative option, that allow people to combine their resources and have a very low-entry license.There is also a micro-business license that is available in California and Massachusetts that is specific to home-based businesses where you could have cultivation, manufacturing and distribution all under one license.

I think here in Connecticut if we were to simply copy Massachusetts, we would have a fantastic, progressive marijuana policy.

Connecticut does not have a ballot measure that would allow for marijuana to be legalized by a popular vote, meaning that any bill legalizing marijuana for commercial sale would have to pass through and be approved by the State senate. As an activist, do you see this as a hindrance, or as an opportunity to create sound policy?

I see it as a opportunity. Just in a technical sense we just don’t have a ballot measure process and so we can’t do it. But I do think that by going through the legislature we can have a more thorough discussion on the details of how we will legalize, rather than whether we should or should not.

I think if you look at the other states what ended up happening was that they passed a law that said, “Yes we should” or, “No we will legalize”, but it is near impossible to actually make a bill that includes implementation of that particular regulation through a ballot measure.

[Going] through the legislature we can. We can have very robust discussion, we can have full bills, they can take as many pages as they need to, we can outline specifically who will be affected, how will history be taken into account, how do we tax, who or what do we tax, where does that tax money should go, all of those details should be worked out and approved ahead of time. So I think we actually have the ability to have the most robust and well-thought out cannabis policy in the nation, if and when we pass legalization.