The first statewide gubernatorial debate in Connecticut was held last Tuesday, November 28th at Yale University at an event co-organized by Yale Students for Sensible Drug Policy and Connecticut NORML. The debate featured four major candidates for governor and was focused on drug policy, giving voters their first glance at the stances of each candidate on issues such as marijuana legalization, social justice, and criminal justice reform. The candidates in attendance were former Middletown mayor Dan Drew (D), former commissioner of consumer protection Jonathan Harris (D), state representative Dr. Prasad Srinivasan (R), and purple heart recipient Micah Welintukonis (I). In total, there were 150 people in attendance at the debate while 5,000 more watched online via a Facebook Live stream on the Yale SSDP page.
The debate was a perfect opportunity to get each candidate on the record about marijuana legalization. Current governor Dannel Malloy has been an opponent of legalization during his tenure, and it was clear that several of the candidates wanted to use the opportunity to say what they will do differently on the issue if elected. Democrat Dan Drew was the most supportive of the idea, stating point blank that he would sign a bill to tax and regulate marijuana in Connecticut if he were governor. Drew pointed to the projected $200 million in tax revenue that the state would see if marijuana were taxed and regulated while also adding that he believes drug abuse is a health issue, rather than a criminal one. Fellow Democrat Jonathan Harris agreed with that last point but was more tepid in his support for legalizing marijuana, stating that he believes legalization needs to happen in a “thoughtful and deliberate” manner. He pointed to the successful legalization efforts in neighboring Massachusetts and ongoing efforts to legalize in Rhode Island as reasons why Connecticut needs to be focusing on this issue now.
Among the other, non-Democrat candidates, there was also support for legalization. Unaffiliated candidate Micah Welintukonis, citing his libertarian ideals, stated in his opening remarks “I am for pot” and that he does not care if people want to smoke or grow plants in their own homes. He also spoke about the potential of marijuana as a medicine, specifically as an alternative to prescription opioids. Welintukonis did say, however, that he has public safety concerns about legalizing marijuana, including driving under the influence. Republican candidate Dr. Prasad Srinivasan was the only candidate on stage who was not in favor of legalization, citing concerns about public health and refuting Mr. Drew’s claim about the revenue marijuana taxation would bring in. Dr. Srinivasan did say that he was in favor of the state’s medical marijuana program and agreed with Mr. Welintukonis that medical marijuana is a medically accepted alternative to prescription opioids, which many in Connecticut believe are contributing to the state’s overdose crisis.
This debate is a fantastic example of utilizing SSDP’s platform as student activists to get politicians on the record and educate the public about important issues relevant to our work. While other SSDP chapters have hosted debates between candidates in the past, the amount of coverage and attention pointed towards this event is unprecedented for an SSDP-organized debate. The debate received dozens of media hits all over the state, more than we were even able to track. The assistance and guidance of CT NORML certainly helped, demonstrating that working with state allies can lead to great results.
In order to assist other SSDP chapters who may want to organize similar debates in the future, I asked Yale SSDP Chapter President Riley Tillitt a few questions about how the debate came together and if he had any advice for other chapters in the network:
What kind of logistics needed to be sorted to ensure the event was successful?
The main priority was reserving a room large enough to accommodate a crowd while also saving space for media and the candidates themselves on the stage. We were lucky that one of the best halls on campus was free, so we booked it! I really can’t stress enough how helpful the wonderful people at CT NORML were throughout the entire process, from reserving and picking up furniture to paying for a lot of the technical and general costs of the event.
How did you promote the event? What got so many people in the room and watching online?
We tried to reach as many different audiences as possible for the event. Some state newspapers and TV stations ran stories about the debate beforehand. We had the candidates send out information on the debate to their supporters, and both Yale SSDP and CT NORML reached into our networks to get supporters to turn out! For the live stream, I was surprised at how many people viewed at least part of the debate. It definitely helped that CT NORML and all of the candidates shared our live stream on their Facebook pages.
What were some of the biggest takeaways from the candidates? Did anything surprise you?
It was clear to me that all of the candidates cared about the issues we were discussing and also recognized that these issues are important for Connecticut. And while the candidates did their best to avoid answering more controversial questions—such as whether we should allow cities to open Supervised Injection Facilities—I was pleased that several of them were forthright in their lack of understanding on the topic and willingness to do more research.
Did you do any proactive media outreach?
We did, and it was mostly CT NORML that took the lead on that. We contacted a number of Yale publications who showed up and ran stories, and they reached out to most major news stations and newspapers across the state. It was exciting to see that the Connecticut Fox Affiliate sent a camera crew to come and record the debate for the evening news!
If you could give one piece of advice to another SSDP chapter organizing a similar debate, what would it be?
Just reach out to current campaigns and see if it’s something they’d be interested in! There’s no harm in sending an email or making a phone call. I wasn’t too sure that we would be able to get any major candidates to come, but I was pleasantly surprised that we got a number of great candidates to agree.
Finally, here are some of the more notable media hits from the debate: