Update on the Legalization of Marijuana in Connecticut
On June 17, 2021, the Connecticut Legislature passed a bill allowing the state to legalize use of cannabis for people 21 years of age or older, which was subsequently signed into law by Governor Ned Lamont on June 22, 2021. As of July 1, 2021, adult use of cannabis is legal in Connecticut.
The new legislation expands the June 2012 legalization of medical marijuana under Governor Dannel P. Malloy’s prior administration.
Senate Bill 1201 legalizes cannabis use for adults over the age of 21 years, limited to no more than 1.54 ounces of cannabis on their person, and no more than 5 ounces in their homes or locked in their car, truck or glove box. Further, all adults age 21 and over will be permitted to grow six cannabis plants indoors within their homes beginning July 1, 2023.
Senate Bill 1201 reduces the penalties for the adult possession of up to 1.5 ounces of marijuana from a criminal misdemeanor (formerly punishable by one year in jail and a $1,000 fine) to a non-criminal infraction, punishable by a $150 fine with no arrest or jail time and no criminal record. The new law similarly reduces penalties for the possession of marijuana paraphernalia. The expungement of minor offenses dealing with cannabis will help many individuals acquire better employment opportunities, which will lead to a growing Connecticut economy.
Criminalization of Cannabis over 1.5 Ounces
Further, although Connecticut has legalized marijuana, the law remains a sliding scale when defining a criminal offense.
Carrying anything over 1.5 ounces for personal use is still illegal, with higher fines for subsequent offenses. A subsequent offense of possession of 1.5 ounces of cannabis is a non-criminal infraction, but the fine rises to $200–$500.
A first offense of possession of 1.5 to 4 ounces is a misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in prison and $1,000 in fines; this also triggers immigration consequences for non‒U.S. citizens. A subsequent offense becomes a felony punishable by up to 5 years' incarceration and a $3,000 fine.
A first offense of possession of 4 ounces or more is a felony punishable by 5 years' imprisonment and a $2,000 fine. Subsequent offenses are punishable by 10 years in jail and a fine of $5,000.
The minimum mandatory sentence for possession of marijuana within 1,500 feet of a school is 2 years' incarceration (without monetary fine) that runs consecutively with any other sentence.
Cannabis Market in Connecticut
At this time, selling any amount of marijuana is illegal and a felony punishable by no less than 7 years in jail and $25,000 in fines. Selling to minors and possessing within 1,500 feet of a school or day care center are both felonies, which add 3 years' imprisonment to any other sentence imposed.
Possession of larger amounts of marijuana is still illegal and punishable by imprisonment and monetary fines. Commercial sale of cannabis will begin as early as May 2022.
The Connecticut Department of Consumer Protection (CDCP) is not accepting applications for cannabis dispensaries nor has it given any recent guidelines for cannabis distributors. Based on the CDCP’s 2018 Request for Application (RFA) for cannabis facilities, it is fair to say that we can expect the CDCP to award between 3 and 10 dispensary facility licenses for locations throughout the state. The licenses will be awarded on a competitive basis after the CDCP evaluates timely applications.
For now, individuals, except non‒U.S. citizens, who wish to partake in cannabis can travel to Connecticut’s neighboring states, Massachusetts and New Jersey, to legally purchase cannabis.
State Legalization versus Federal Law
Connecticut is among 18 states plus Washington, D.C. and Guam that have fully legalized cannabis, the other states are Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Vermont, Virginia and Washington. To date, 37 states and Washington D.C., Guam and U.S. Virgin Islands have passed at least some legislation allowing legal medical cannabis use.
Despite the growing trend among the states to legalize the use of marijuana, medical and/or personal use remain illegal at the federal level. As such, there is disparity with regard to the impact on individuals who have a prior criminal record as a result of cannabis, affecting federal employment opportunities.
This impact is more severe on individuals who are not U.S. citizens, which can adversely impact their immigration status as well as significantly impact their lives. Whether prior to or subsequent to Connecticut’s legalization of cannabis, persons ‒ including employees who work in the cannabis industry ‒ who admit to using or benefit financially from selling, manufacturing or investing in the industry can be denied entry to the United States, denied applications for naturalization or permanent residency (green card), be subjected to mandatory detention and in some cases be removed from the United States.