Legalize It? Connecticut Grapples with Marijuana Law
On a late night in October of 1995, 15-year-old Marcus Price was strolling down his block in New Haven when he was stopped by a pair of white cops.
The baggy pockets of his black army pants were stuffed with 1,200 dollars and enough marijuana to rake in a few hundred more. But it wasn’t the pockets that gave him away.
“I was on a drug block,” Price told The Politic. “I should’ve known I’d be stopped and taken in.
As Price was handcuffed and driven down to the station, he wasn’t wracked by fear of punishment. At the time, he considered the arrest a rite of passage. In his young mind, a drug dealer had all the markers of a hero: money, grit, and defiance towards the powers that be.
It was his first offense, so Price got off with a sentence of three years probation. But the probation did little to impact his mindset.
“I didn’t change or anything,” Price explained. “My probation officer went on vacation right after the case and I never heard from her again,” he continued. “So I just continued as I had.”
Emboldened by the laxity of his first encounter with the law, Price started selling crack cocaine and soon found himself in competitive skirmishes with other dealers as each tried to assert his territory. For a while, the brushes remained relatively harmless, like when he stole another dealer’s dirt bike. But at 17, Price got himself involved in an armed fight. And this time, he was charged with assault in the first degree.
In any court case, if a jury returns a guilty verdict, then a judge must sentence the defendant. Judges have broad discretion in sentencing, though they must take into account prosecutorial recommendations and mandatory minimums and maximums, which dictate the prison time that can be set for a particular crime. Price’s judge could have sentenced him to any amount of time between five and 20 years, according to the sentencing restrictions for his crime.
In 1997, seventeen-year-old Price, a minor, was sentenced to the full 20 years in prison.
“I got the maximum because of my previous offenses,” he speculated.
Advocates of marijuana legalization might seize upon Price’s experience as an example of prohibition perpetuating America’s incarceration crisis. Were marijuana use legal and his record clean, perhaps Price would not have been imprisoned past the age of 22. Instead, he was released just last year, at 37.
In Connecticut, 2018 gubernatorial candidates are wrestling with the issue of marijuana legalization. While some fiercely support legalization for fiscal and social reasons, others note potential health and safety risks. Disagreements aside, most candidates recognize that the War on Drugs, and the attendant War on Marijuana, have disproportionately targeted communities of color. While some legalization advocates hope that a new policy will undo the legacy of discriminatory drug laws, racial justice has not been given the level of attention afforded to the public health and fiscal elements of this debate.
The Connecticut legislature has continually relaxed the state’s marijuana restrictions. In 2011, Hartford approved marijuana decriminalization, which means that possession of marijuana under certain amounts cannot lead to prison time, nor to a criminal record for a first-time offense. In effect, small amounts of marijuana possession are treated as traffic violations—still illegal, but not criminal. Legalization, on the other hand, would make marijuana use non-criminal. In 2012 and 2014, the state moved to legalize a medical marijuana program and the industrial hemp industry.
Despite the spate of reforms, Governor Dannel Malloy (D) remains staunchly in opposition to recreational legalization. During his tenure, efforts to legalize recreational use among adults failed to pass the state legislature. Other states that have legalized recreational use have done so through ballot initiatives, allowing voters to make the decisions. Connecticut, however, has no such ballot process. Legalization would require the state legislature’s support and the governor’s stamp. But with Malloy’s decision not to run for reelection in 2018, legalization advocates see an opening.
At the same time, the state’s fiscal crisis might increase advocates’ chances of success. Despite having the highest per capita income of any state in the union, Connecticut is on the verge of bankruptcy, with a 200 million dollar deficit in 2017 compounding the state’s two billion dollars of public debt. As Riley Tillet ’19 of Students for Sensible Drug Policy explained to The Politic, marijuana legalization has become a hot-button issue for many candidates, in large part because a newly-taxable marijuana market could help close that gap. The Connecticut Office of Fiscal Management estimates the market would increase tax revenues by 100 million dollars annually. In addition, the state would no longer have to spend taxpayer funds to arrest and prosecute marijuana offenders.
There is also a fiscal spillover concern. Because Massachusetts recently legalized recreational marijuana, some Connecticut residents are spending their money at dispensaries across state lines. According to Paul Armentano of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), “You are going to have Connecticut residents spending their dollars in Massachusetts and that doesn’t benefit Connecticut. It’ll be to the benefit of Massachusetts, who is the first to the finish line.”
While the spillover concern, fiscal crisis, and gubernatorial shake-up play to advocates’ interest, the Trump Administration’s recent announcement that it will begin enforcing the federal prohibition of marijuana casts a cloud over the otherwise bright prospect of Connecticut’s legalization.
According to Yale Law School professor Steven Duke, the chances of a federal crackdown seem unlikely. “My expectation is that the enforcement of federal marijuana laws will not change as a result of that statement,” he told The Politic. “Sessions does not have the muscle, nor does Trump, to reverse what has been happening in the last ten years or so.”
In December 2017, the first statewide gubernatorial debate on the topic of marijuana reform took place. Co-hosted by the Students for Sensible Drug Policy at Yale and the Connecticut Branch of NORML, the event featured four of the almost twenty declared gubernatorial candidates. Former Middletown mayor Dan Drew (D), former commissioner of consumer protection Jonathan Harris (D), state representative Prasad Srinivasan (R), and purple heart recipient Micah Welintukonis (I) addressed a series of topics, ranging from the state’s nascent medical marijuana program and the opioid epidemic to the issue of recreational legalization.
The beginning of the debate focused on the medical marijuana program, which opponents characterize as overly cautious, exclusionary, and monopolistic. As debate moderator Aaron Romano of NORML said, the program’s costly licensing process requires the availability of serious amounts of capital to which very few firms have access. Moreover, only certain medical conditions, such as cancer, are included in the program, while opioid addiction is not. Medical marijuana is not covered by insurance.
According to Armentano, legalization allows doctors to recommend that patients buy their product through dispensaries, in the same way doctors might recommend patients stop by the drug store for Advil. This change, he said, might solve some of the limitations endemic to the medical marijuana program.
Out of the four panelists, Drew emerged as the strongest advocate of legalization for recreational adult use. Drew emphasized legalization as a means to protect vulnerable groups: opioid addicts, low-income communities, and people of color. According to Drew, states that have legalized marijuana for recreational use have seen overdoses drop by roughly 25 percent.
At the same time, the candidates recognized that marijuana legalization could help undo the War on Drugs, which has persisted in Connecticut for decades. Connecticut has one of the highest increases in racial disparities for marijuana possession arrest rates, according to a study conducted by the American Civil Liberties Union. In 2001, black people were 2.2 times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana possession, despite the fact that both races used marijuana at similar rates. By 2010, that figure jumped to 3.3 times more likely. Certain counties were particularly egregious. In Middlesex and Litchfield, for example, black possession arrests were found to be seven and eight times higher than white possession arrests. But the candidates were less concerned with race than with opioid addiction.
Commissioner Harris, who oversaw the rollout of the medical program during his tenure, was more tepid in his support of recreational legalization. While he agreed that Connecticut should consider medical marijuana as potentially helpful in combating the opioid epidemic (which he revealed affected his family), he emphasized that the state should deal with legalization in a “thoughtful and deliberate” manner.
Sitting at the far end of the panel, anti-establishment and unaffiliated candidate Welintukonis counterposed Harris’s insider status. His opening remarks included a quip over his no-shave-November beard and some dry mockery of Hartford’s “political B.S.” In line with his “common man” brand, Welintukonis got straight to the point.
“Yeah, so I’m for pot,” he announced with a smirk, eliciting a chorus of giggles from the crowd.
Still, it seemed as though he was repeating, albeit in a watered-down fashion, the supportive points brought up by Mayor Drew.
Srinivasan, the lone Republican on the panel, expressed his party’s general disapproval of legalization efforts. Specifically, Srinivasan claimed that the expectations of significant tax revenue are overblown—where debt runs in the billions, a hundred million or so extra dollars will be a drop in the bucket at best.
But his main point was the potential public and social health costs. Among opponents, there is widespread concern that a legal profit-driven market could increase the use of marijuana products.
Opponents also worry about marijuana users driving while under the influence. Unlike with alcohol, where a breathalyzer test immediately determines one’s level of intoxication, no such technology exists for marijuana. Duke believes that there is no proof of cause and effect between marijuana intoxication and fatal accidents.
“Drivers under the influence of marijuana are aware that they are impaired and most of them, unless they are drunk on alcohol, will compensate for their impairment by driving more slowly,” he said. “Whereas people high on alcohol are not aware of the extent of their impairment and that’s why they kill so many people.”
That the first statewide gubernatorial debate focused on marijuana reform seems to presuppose that marijuana policy has been a top concern among candidates. In reality, however, it seems that the debate itself brought marijuana policy into the spotlight. The event triggered a wave of attention from the media and provoked responses from other candidates.
Just hours after the panel discussion ended, for example, Libertarian candidate Mark Stewart posted a video on YouTube outlining his full-throttled support for legalizing recreational adult use. In an interview with The Politic, Stewart promised that, if elected, he would legalize recreational use by 2020.
Democratic candidate Lee Whitnum told The Politic that she also favors legalization to aid with the budgetary and opioid crises. “Unlike synthetic opioids that come from a lab in New Jersey, marijuana is an all-natural product and not physically addictive,” she explained.
The recent push for legalization comes too late to make a difference for Marcus Price. When Price was released at age 37, he needed a job.
“I’m using the same hustling mentality from when I was selling drugs, but this time I’m getting jobs,” he said. “I just slept for 20 years so I don’t care about sleep these days. I’ll get two jobs, three jobs, whatever it takes to succeed.”
These days he works at a Dunkin Donuts in Hamden by day, but serves as a mentor by night.
When Price was in prison upstate, he co-founded a program called Skills of Socialization, or SOS, through which he mentored youth who were involved with drugs. He urged them to find new paths and to avoid the types of 20-year sentences imposed on those, like him, who continued to deal drugs despite a first warning.
“The program worked wonders for young men,” Price said. “They are the most important because they don’t have the kind of [sentences] that we had. So we have an opportunity to show them what you can potentially be if you don’t change your act today. You have to own up to what you did so you don’t become like us.”
Still, SOS does not have a one-hundred-percent success rate. One young SOS graduate was living at Price’s halfway house when he began dealing again. When the behavior came to Price’s attention, he pulled the young man aside. “I told him I wasn’t disappointed, but that he should be disappointed in himself,” Price said. “Just a day later he was back on his feet and thanking me. His caseworker came to me and asked how I did it. I said no disrespect, but at the end of the day I can do your job better than you because I can relate.”
As candidates and advocates tout marijuana legalization as a vital reform, those like Price who have experienced incarceration firsthand see the marijuana issue as only part of the solution. Had marijuana been legalized by 1995, Price might not have preferred a low-paying dispensary job to making hundreds of dollars a day on the street. Similarly, if marijuana is legalized in 2018, it might not dramatically change the prospects of the young man in Price’s halfway house.
The full decriminalization of marijuana remains a critical first step in dismantling America’s War on Drugs, a policy that persists in Connecticut. For Price, however, America must reassess its priorities if legalization is to effectively undo the legacy of punitive drug laws.
In Price’s mind, the belief that legalization will remedy decades of racist drug policies is overblown. Price worries that the current debate focuses too much on legalization’s fiscal benefits and public health improvements. Legalization efforts in Connecticut prioritize tax revenue and an improved healthcare system, but they might overlook the Marcus Prices of the world.