January 14, 2019
Editor's Take

Will legalizing vices help or hurt CT long term?

Hartford Business Journal Editor Greg Bordonaro

It seems inevitable that Connecticut will rely more on sin taxes by the end of this year, which should help bring in more revenue to a state that's been mired in a fiscal crisis for more than a decade.

But what are the long-term consequences — social and otherwise — of legalizing recreational marijuana use or sports betting?

I don't know the answer to that — most likely no one does at this point — but it's a key question state lawmakers and Gov. Ned Lamont, who has said he supports greenlighting both vices, must weigh in the weeks and months ahead.

Another hot-burner issue is adding a third casino in East Windsor, which lawmakers previously approved but have run into federal roadblocks they may try to overcome.

Connecticut isn't breaking ground in any of these areas. Ten or so states and the District of Columbia have already legalized recreational pot use, including Massachusetts, which has put pressure on our state to respond in order to capture some of the economic benefits. At stake is potentially $180 million in annual tax revenue, according to one estimate, which is a big number for a state facing a $3 billion-plus deficit over the next two fiscal years.

Some states have also legalized sports betting in the wake of the Supreme Court's 2018 decision to allow it, including nearby Rhode Island and New Jersey.

A bipartisan group of southeastern Connecticut lawmakers has already submitted a bill that would establish sports betting at the state's two casinos and online. It's unclear how much tax revenue that proposal would raise for the state. As of November, New Jersey, whose population is more than twice the size of ours, booked about $8 million in revenue from online and brick-and-mortar sports betting, which it launched last summer.

The concern, in my mind, about expanding our reliance on sin taxes is the long-term social and cultural consequences it will have on the state. Frankly, we don't really know what they'll be.

Do I think it will lead to the social disintegration of Connecticut's communities? No, and this is no time for hyperbole — we need a fact-based conversation on the true impacts of legalizing behavior we long thought should be against the law.

Luckily, some early evidence exists from other states.

Colorado was at the vanguard of recreational pot legalization. It was the first state to do so in 2012. In October, the Centennial State released a five-year impact study that concluded young people aren't smoking more than they used to, but organized crime was on the rise. The report also said it was unclear whether legal weed has led to more impaired drivers, according to The Denver Post.

Lamont, in his support for legalization, has said he doesn't want the black market running the weed trade in Connecticut, which is a fair point. But the main argument pot proponents are using is an economic one.

And if you dangle a pot of gold in front of state lawmakers these days they'll do just about anything to get their hands on it.

However, I've always believed pushing legalization of an illegal drug simply because it will help the state raise new revenues is not sound economic, social or public-health policy.

Legalizing weed as a way to reform the criminal justice system, for example, is a better argument worth having, but even that notion is flawed. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, for example, at one point said he opposed legalizing recreational pot even though he made significant strides to decriminalize small amounts of the drug's use.

I agree that marijuana use shouldn't stain an individual's criminal record — damaging the employability of low-level offenders, particularly minorities — but sanctioning the drug's use, which legalization would do, is a road I'd prefer not to travel down.

At the same time I understand public opinion is rapidly changing on this topic and legalization appears inevitable. I just hope lawmakers take their time to truly understand the long-term consequences.

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