Last week, House and Senate Democrats announced a budget proposal that, among other things, would tax and regulate marijuana.
As a Hartford City Councilor, this was welcome news. Back in March, I submitted a resolution to support marijuana legalization as a way to generate revenue for our struggling cities that would not increase tax rates. But more importantly, marijuana legalization would create jobs and business opportunities for our youth, something Connecticut needs even more than revenue. At a time where vital social services are in jeopardy of being cut, and young people are leaving in droves, legalizing marijuana must be part of any responsible budget solution.
Whether we like it or not, marijuana legalization is coming to New England. Massachusetts and Maine adopted it last year, the Vermont Legislature has passed a bill to follow suit, and discussions in Rhode Island are ongoing. If our state lawmakers are smart and interested in long-term solutions, they will keep marijuana reform in the budget and set Connecticut up to be a leader in this new industry. If they do not, we will miss a golden opportunity for economic revitalization and social justice.
Even under prohibition, marijuana is easy to find in Connecticut. According to federal data, nearly half a million state residents use it each year, and the vast majority of them do so responsibly. Next summer, the first adult use dispensaries will open in Massachusetts, putting legal marijuana within a short drive of everyone in the state. Since people are going to consume marijuana in Connecticut either way, we should allow local businesses to participate in this new industry instead of sending those good-paying jobs and tax dollars to Massachusetts.
We also can not ignore that like the state government, our cities — including Hartford, our capital — are facing their own budget crisis. The mayor and city council of Hartford must find $40 million in new revenue or risk going bankrupt. This is putting pensions and our schools at risk of catastrophe.
While we are grateful that the state is stepping up to help, we know we must grow our business community if Hartford is to thrive over the long term. Regulation of marijuana would provide a new growth industry that can build in Hartford and hire in Hartford. With such a dire situation for our cities, we simply can not afford to let yet another economic opportunity pass us by.
As legislative leadership points out, revenues from a regulated marijuana market would be significant. Regulating marijuana like alcohol could bring in nearly $200 million in new tax revenue for the state — five times what Hartford needs to stay afloat. This tax money could be spent on public education, and we could even follow the example of other states by allowing towns and cities to adopt their own local taxes.
In Massachusetts, municipalities can adopt a 2 percent sales tax on top of the 10 percent tax that is the default statewide. This new revenue source would be welcome in Hartford, as over half of our property is owned by tax-exempt groups like hospitals and the state government.
One major proposal for closing the budget gap is to shift some of the cost of teachers’ pensions to municipalities, which is essentially a back-door property tax increase. If you had to decide whether to increase property taxes or tax marijuana, which would you prefer? If you’re like the majority of voters, 63 percent to be exact, you’d rather tax marijuana.
It just makes sense — people are going to keep consuming marijuana whether it’s legal or not, and marijuana consumers are the only group in the entire state who are asking to pay more in taxes. In exchange, they will be able to buy it in licensed, state-regulated stores instead of buying untested marijuana on the street, while funding our schools and cities in the process.
I urge local officials across the state to join me in supporting this proposal to tax and regulate marijuana and to give our cities the tools they need to succeed.
Wildaliz Bermúdez is a member of the Hartford City Council.