NORWALK, Conn. — The Democratic-dominated Common Council plans to allow three cannabis dispensaries in Norwalk, over the objections of eight opponents who spoke at Tuesday’s public hearing.
The Council Ordinance Committee has sent its draft cannabis ordinance to the full Council for a vote, with the sole Council Republican as the lone no vote. Should it pass Tuesday, the Planning and Zoning Commission would then tackle specifics, including permitted locations for dispensaries.
It’s a move inspired by a State law passed last year, decriminalizing marijuana for anyone at least 21 years old, setting standards and allowing marijuana cultivation. The Council is “seizing upon” an opportunity provided by the Legislature to create jobs and bring in a new industry, said Council member Josh Goldstein (D-At Large), chief architect of the draft cannabis ordinance.
Under the law, if Norwalk chooses not to regulate marijuana, people could smoke anywhere and “if you want to regulate public marijuana consumption, you need to provide at least one designated spot for its use,” Goldstein said. “It’s not really up for Norwalk to determine whether to legalize it or not. In fact, it’s already been legalized in the state of Connecticut, you’re already allowed to possess it, and store it up to certain specified amounts.”
Opponents stressed a need for addiction prevention and expressed skepticism
“As someone that’s lived this as a parent, as a therapist, and as a peer, I really asked that any money to be gained from marijuana sales are put aside to provide counseling and support for those whose lives are damaged or destroyed by marijuana,” Katherine Price Snedaker said.
Margaret Watt, Prevention Director at Positive Directions – The Center for Prevention and Counseling, thanked Council members and City staff for “all for the diligence and care” in studying the issue. But leaving it up to the Mayor to choose a public space where it’s legal to smoke marijuana is “odd” and “highly politicizes things,” she said.
Fines could be higher but then again may be ineffective anyway, Watt said, providing an example of a “vape shop in Norwalk that’s already been cited eight times.”
“Our concern is really preventing underage use. And the State cannabis law has essentially no consequences for teens who would use or be sold marijuana,” Watt said, also arguing that there’s no budget for police to implement the laws and report on the results.
“Three community members this past weekend went and visited vape shops in town and asked for THC and were given THC at two of the three,” Watt said. “… If you have to monitor every bodega in town, it’s going to be a big job.”
State law allows municipalities to collect a 3% sales tax on cannabis sales, with strings attached to ensure the money goes to social equity priorities, in response to the damage done by the War on Drugs.
“A lot of the revenue that we that we’re going to be making in terms of the sales is just going to create quality of life issues and other administrative problems for the city,” Independent District 25 State Senate candidate Lisa Brinton said.
Republican District 143 State Representative candidate Nicole Hampton said the State won’t provide money for prevention until fiscal year 2024 and asked, “Is the city willing to kick in money to pay for prevention before this becomes a really bad, huge problem?”
Police will have their hands tied, Hampton said. “They can’t even pull anyone over, unless they witnessed that person smoking marijuana actually hit something.”
Diane Cece asked why Norwalk should serve “the path of least resistance again,” this time for a drug. “It seems to me that it’s not being regulated in the same way in terms of sales and control, even as we do liquor. So I’m not clear on why we’re considering that within the city.”
Citizens will become “passive participants” as they’re subjected to marijuana smoke in the public realm, she said.
Former Council member Rich Bonenfant cast aspersions on the hearing itself. “It’s a required box, you got to check off and you already know what you’re going to do anyway,” he said.
Goldstein said, “Some of the items that were mentioned in public comments are really good points, but they’re kind of beyond the scope of what a municipality can do in an ordinance.”
The restrictions will allow police to issue tickets to folks who are flagrantly violating the ordinance by smoking on the sidewalk, and while some opponents asked why people can’t just smoke it at home, “some people live in apartment buildings and may not be able to do so in their own building and may need a space outside to do it,” Goldstein said.
Giving the Mayor the responsibility of choosing where people can smoke marijuana gives the City “flexibility” to make a change quickly because “as any of you who’ve been following the ordinance process knows it takes a long time to change the ordinance,” he said.
“We don’t know how much money the city would receive from cannabis,” Goldstein said. “But there is a real intent from, you know, elected leaders and leaders in the city to make sure that this money is spent to, frankly, better our community and put forward a lot of community programs and efforts, many of which we have not been able to fully fund for a long time. So I think this could provide a tremendous benefit, but it’s basically really one of a number of benefits of this law.”
The State created a Social Equity Council and Norwalk has eight census tracts that qualify as adversely impacted by the War on Drugs, Norwalk Chief of Social Services Lamond Daniels said, suggesting that funding should flow to those areas, “both from a programmatic perspective, those from a campaign and preventive perspective.”
Council member Bryan Meek (R-District D) asked if there’s a revenue estimate.
“The State provided some revenue projections. The City does not supply its own projections,” Goldstein said. He thought the State estimated $18-20 million state-wide but it wasn’t broken down by municipalities.
“I think this whole thing is just a solution looking for problems,” Meek said, citing his own back of the envelope math using “reliable sources” to say, “it’s going to be more than dog licenses, but it’s not even going to be anywhere close to a million or $2 million a year” even if all of Norwalk’s neighbors come here to buy their cannabis.
“We have no idea if you’re right or if you’re wrong,” Goldstein replied. “That’s going to be a TBD, we’ll see. But even if it were a million dollars, there’s a lot of good that can come from money at that level for a lot of the community programs that have been, have been frankly underfunded in this city.”
“This is a compromise piece of legislation… addressing a complex issue on which people have a lot of different perspectives,” Council member Nora Niedzielski-Eichner (D-At Large) said. “…It is a balancing act that I anticipate will take months, if not years, to try to get right.”
She compared the situation to the convulsions caused by the prohibition on alcohol. “The historical record is clear on from both Prohibition and the War on Drugs that trying to outright prohibit these substances leads to more harm in the long run than this kind of carefully controlled, and thoughtful regulation around usage,” she said.
She’s “confident” that the ordinance has reached the correct level of flexibility. “Our police department has spent an inordinate amount of time and money over the last several decades attempting to enforce marijuana laws, I don’t anticipate that enforcing this ordinance is going to consume any more of their time or resources than their attempts to enforce marijuana laws under the strict prohibition.”
Every City department was involved in creating the ordinance, Ordinance Committee Chairwoman Lisa Shanahan (D-District E) said. “This work in some ways is ahead of a lot of the other municipalities in the state of Connecticut so we may well be leading the charge on a thoughtful ordinance considering the use and regulation of cannabis in a municipality.”
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