A bill that would legalize marijuana sales in Connecticut has cleared the General Law Committee and is headed for the full House. The bill, HB-7371, received a favorable recommendation from the committee by a 10-8 vote. Trumbull Rep. David Rutigliano (R-123rd), the only Trumbull legislator on the committee, voted against it.
“Right now marijuana is decriminalized, so no one is going to jail for marijuana possession,” Rutigliano said. “But there is a world of difference between decriminalizing and legalizing.”
Trumbull’s Board of Education and TPAUD, a community youth alcohol and drug use prevention organization, both opposed HB-7371 on the grounds that marijuana use among teens is linked to lower academic performance and other high-risk behavior. Rutigliano said their opposition was one factor in his vote.
“But to be honest, the biggest thing was the testimony from some of the doctors that came to the hearing and spoke against it,” Rutigliano said.
For example, Rutigliano said tobacco giant Altria, the parent company of Phillip Morris and maker of Marlboro, Virginia Slims and Benson & Hedges cigarettes, among others, is also an owner of cannabis companies. Altria last year spent $1.8 billion to acquire a 45% share in Cronos Group, a Canadian cannabis company. Also last year the company also paid $12.8 billion for a 35% share of Juul, a market leader in e-cigarettes.
“Everybody thinks it’s hippies in Birkenstocks that own these companies, but it’s not,” Rutigliano said. “I don’t think it’s the right thing to do to let the same people that used to push tobacco be in charge of marijuana because the first thing they’ll want to do is increase their market share, which means increasing the number of people that are using it.”
Rutigliano, who co-owns the SBC Restaurant group that includes bars serving cocktails and locally brewed beer, rejected comparisons between marijuana and alcohol use.
“The polite enjoyment of alcoholic beverages by adults has been part of our culture for a long time,” he said. “It’s been thousands of years that people have been making beer and wine.”
Marijuana, on the other hand, has changed over the years, he said. And the influx of capital from tobacco companies means that the product and how it’s marketed are a world apart from what Baby Boomers remember, he said. According to the American Chemical Society, the concentration of THC, the psychoactive chemical in marijuana, is 7.5 times what it was a generation ago.
Juul in particular has attracted attention for its marketing practices, with the FDA threatening fines and other sanctions last year over its "kid-friendly" marketing and flavors such as mango and fruit medley. Juul later pulled some of its sweet flavors from stores.
Rutigliano said he sees the same tactics being employed in legalized cannabis sales.
“What’s around now is nothing like what they smoked in the 60s,” Rutigliano said. “And these companies are producing things like marijuana cookies and gummy bears. You tell me who they’re marketing their products to.”