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With the legalization of recreational cannabis, towns across Connecticut are scrambling to understand not just the economic impact, but the possible social ramifications of what the new law actually means for municipalities. According to town officials, for Madison the economic benefits of a potential retail storefront are less important than the potential quality of life issues that will be affected by the law, which allows one shop in town, if the town approves such a use.
Selectman Bruce Wilson (R) said that he sees both sides of the issue and thinks that a slow but steady approach may be the best fit for the town.
“The prohibition on cannabis has been a failure. As an illegal substance, the discussion is often reduced to the notion that it is bad because it is illegal. I hope that legalization will create the opportunity for us to have open conversations about the perils of abuse and addiction as well as responsible recreational use. I see us approaching this topic much the same way we talk about alcohol or gambling,” said Wilson.
There are numerous issues that all municipalities must face when dealing with this issue. There are state mandates, town ordinances, and planning and zoning issues, and the ultimate fact that cannabis is still illegal under federal law when attempting to plan how legal cannabis will be addressed and adopted into any town’s structure.
Captain Joseph Race of the Madison Police Department said that retraining of personnel will be just the first step in dealing with the law’s impact.
“This change is substantial. It is so much greater than just legalization. The interplay with federal law, state mandates, and juvenile law are a big change,” said Race.
According to Race, in the past the odor of Marijuana probable cause for stopping motor vehicles; with the enactment of the law, that is no longer a valid reason for pulling over suspected impaired drivers. According to Race, the law has a mandate that a drug recognition expert (DRE) be on-scene at many vehicle incidents to determine impairment levels. Unlike other drugs such as opiates and alcohol, which have clear rubrics and measurements to determine the level of an individual’s intoxication, there is currently no test to determine if someone is under the influence of cannabis/THC.
According to Race, the training process for a DRE officer is not only time consuming but academically challenging, making the hiring of these required personnel extremely cumbersome for departments like Madison.
“The training for a DRE is very difficult, perhaps some of the hardest training for law enforcement that is out there. These officers have to know human anatomy, chemistry, science…They are also prerequisites needed prior to the training. It is not a simple thing. A large majority of people who take the course fail, because the training is so intensive,” said Race.
Race also said that he hopes residents will understand that cannabis is no different than alcohol. Smoking while driving is not legal and he implores residents to keep their THC products at home and off Madison streets.
“Keep your stuff at home, please. There is no reason to be smoking and driving. It puts you and others at risk. The substance is legal, but keep it at home,” Race said, encouraging those who use cannabis “do it respectfully and do it responsibly.”
One organization that is openly against the promotion of legal THC is Madison Youth & Family Services (MYFS), which is advocating for a moratorium on allowing cannabis sales in town so that all voices can be heard before a decision is made. MYFS Director Scott Cochran said he sees the negative effects and devastation that cannabis and other can drugs wreak every day.
“There are a number of issues we see arising from this. Given the much higher concentration of THC in many of these products is a huge concern—the edibles and vapes are far higher in their dosage than Marijuana. The products are also much easier to consume and to hide both at home and at school and we are already seeing a problem in the schools with this,” said Cochran.
Many advocates state that legal cannabis should be treated in the same way as alcohol. According to Cochran, the idea that THC will be marketed and treated like alcohol is actually a major concern for his organization.
“We see this with alcohol already in how it is sold, promoted, [and] marketed and as such has become a driver for youth use. The way alcohol is marketed is not good public health policy—it may be a good economic model, but from a public health standpoint, it is dangerous,” said Cochran.
As to the argument that cannabis is already available to any kid who wants it, Catherine Barden, assistant director at MYFS, said it falls flat.
“It’s no secret that youth can already access Marijuana. Our concern with retail stores is that it increases that availability, not only for the potential to try and purchase in stores underage (like we’ve seen with alcohol) but through older brothers, sisters, cousins, friends, etc. We also have to worry about increased access through social media,” said Barden. “Apps like Snapchat and TikTok open the door for illegal sales to users with little to no age verification. Legalization also tends to lower the perception of risk. Lowered perception of risk, and greater access almost always correlate in increased youth use.”
First Selectman Peggy Lyons said that an ad hoc committee, the Marijuana Legalization Advisory Committee, is currently being formed to study the issue. According to Lyons, the town is likely to impose a temporary moratorium to make sure that it is ahead of the issue and that residents and officials have the room to make sure that any decision is the right one for Madison residents.
“We have created an ad hoc committee and we are looking for volunteers to serve on it. We need residents and encourage them to weigh in with us,” said Lyons. “Right now, we are moving toward a temporary moratorium so that we can see and gather information. We want to see how other town’s approaches are working or not working. We want to see what works and we need to hear from the public. We need to get educated and to get feedback to understand this issue.”
Committee members will also include members of the public. Anyone wishing to participate can visit the town website www.madisonct.org for more information.