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June 8, 2021

Legislators say CT marijuana bill favored one potential producer

Mark Pazniokas | CT Mirror House Speaker Matt Ritter and House Minority Leader Vincent J. Candelora consult Monday on legislative business.

The Connecticut marijuana legalization bill was hastily rewritten Monday night to strike language that would have given preference for a cultivation license to at least one former medical marijuana investor if he partnered with an urban applicant lacking expertise and capital.

The language was sought by Sen. Douglas McCrory, D-Hartford, who said his intention was to match an experienced and deep-pocketed player with a “social equity applicant,” someone from a neighborhood disproportionately harmed by the war on drugs.

“It’d almost be like a mentor-type relationship,” McCrory said. “By doing that, everyone wins.”

Whatever the motivation, the next-to-last provision in a 297-page draft released over the weekend quickly drew questions, then vehement objections, from the office of Gov. Ned Lamont and House leaders.

It would have allowed a “former backer of a producer” to obtain a cultivation license “without being subject to a lottery” if partnered with a social-equity applicant. The fee for a cultivation license will be $3 million.

“That was a glaring issue for me,” said House Minority Leader Vincent J. Candelora, R-North Branford. “We don’t typically write legislation to benefit an individual. Clearly that provision was benefitting an individual, and I don’t know who that individual is. But it gave me grave concern.”

House Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, said Candelora flagged the provision, prompting a cascade of calls and meetings, first with the governor’s chief of staff, Paul Mounds, and legal counsel Nora Dannehy. The immediate question: Was the language written with one investor in mind?

Theoretically, the provision could have applied to anyone who had been an investor in Connecticut’s medical marijuana business then cashed out. But lawmakers said they settled on Theraplant or one of its investors as a likely beneficiary, once learning its owners had a sales agreement and were cashing out.

“We wanted the governor’s office to look at it. We brought them in. We communicated to the Senate that after talking to the Republicans, there was a feeling that this was a provision that they felt could have broad applicability — or could have very narrow applicability,” Ritter said.

House Majority Leader Jason Rojas, D-East Hartford, and Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, who led the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus working group  that produced the bill, met with Mounds later Monday. All later said they agreed the language had to be struck, even as McCrory continued to demand it remain in the bill.

Defining in law who should benefit from the new business was one of its thorniest issues. Without naming McCrory, Rojas said he had deferred to the Senate in including the provision. But Rojas said he had questioned whether it actually would have promoted social equity — and then was alarmed to learn it appeared directed at one entity, Theraplant of Watertown.

“I felt strongly that the language needed to be removed from this bill before it could be considered by either chamber,” Rojas said.

While an association of the four medical marijuana growers in Connecticut has one lobbyist, Theraplant also was represented by at least two lobbyists, Patrick Sullivan of Sullivan & LeShane and Marc DiBella, the Democratic town chair of Hartford.

Sullivan hung up when called for comment, later texting that he was not a spokesman. Brian Flaherty, who runs the firm’s public-relations affiliate, had no comment on behalf of the lobbying firm or its client, Theraplant. DiBella said he was not authorized to speak for his client.

Greenrose Acquisition Corp. disclosed an agreement in March to purchase Theraplant, one of several purchases of cannabis growers in several states that already had legalized recreational marijuana.

The Senate, which began debate Monday night, was expected to pass and send the bill to the House.

With the House scheduled to devote Tuesday to passage of the state budget, the marijuana bill was unlikely to come to a vote in the lower chamber until Wednesday, the final day of the session.

Candelora said the bill will get close scrutiny in the House.

“There is a lot of money at stake,” he said. “There’s a lot of greed. And there’s a lot of people at the table. And I think that process needs to be opened up and more transparent to the legislature. Dropping a 300-page document three days before we’re gaveling out to vote on a bill that’s doling out multimillions of dollars is very dangerous.”

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