Conn. AG Talks Unregulated Cannabis 'Danger,' Abortion

By Aaron Keller | June 13, 2023, 7:09 PM EDT ·

Explaining that unlicensed and unregulated THC products pose a "danger" because they could subject consumers, especially youths, to medically unsafe doses, Connecticut Attorney General William Tong said during a wide-ranging interview with Law360 that his office would continue to target cannabis sellers who try to skirt his state's recreational marijuana laws.  

Headshot of Asian American man wearing dark suit

William Tong

Tong's office filed lawsuits earlier this year against five retailers accused of illegally selling delta-8 THC products that mimicked what the attorney general called "youth-oriented snacks and candies." Additional warning letters reminded the sellers of electronic vaping products that any product containing more than 0.3% THC could only be sold through the regulated cannabis market.

"We have laws for a reason," Tong, a Democrat who has held the office since 2019, said during the discussion.

Tong also discussed a recently challenged prison debt law and his role in the national battle over abortion.

Abortion rights are an evolving part of Connecticut law. The general statutes have long protected abortion, but they now also contain a "claw back" provision designed to protect against foreign anti-abortion judgments sought to be enforced in Connecticut through the Full Faith and Credit Clause.

Tong recently joined 16 other states in a lawsuit that sought to force the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to maintain its 2000 approval of the abortion drug mifepristone. That effort led a federal judge in the Eastern District of Washington on April 7 to maintain the status quo in Connecticut and elsewhere. A dueling ruling by a Texas federal judge, also on April 7, blocked the FDA's approval of the drug. The U.S. Supreme Court stayed the Texas ruling on April 21.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. It is the second installment in a two-part discussion.

Your office recently announced a crackdown on delta-8 and other unregulated THC products. What other efforts are underway to combat the unregulated cannabis market? What tools are available to your office and what support or cooperation do you provide to local law enforcement?

There's a bill in the Legislature right now about outlawing delta-8 in a more targeted way. We don't exercise criminal jurisdiction in the office of attorney general. That is entrusted to another set of officials in Connecticut — the state's attorneys.

We're going to continue to use our consumer protection authority, our [Connecticut Unfair Trade Practices Act] authority. We're going to work closely with the Department of Consumer Protection to go after these bad actors who, frankly, present a grave danger to the public, especially kids.

One of our big concerns is that these products are often packaged to look like snacks or candy. They're very appealing in their packaging for young people.

On top of that, you have the bootleg cannabis products that don't contain delta products — they contain cannabis edibles. They're totally unregulated. Totally illegal.

If you're a little kid and you find that on a kitchen counter somewhere, and you eat the whole bag, you're going to the hospital. That's very dangerous.

Some have suggested that the state's policy choices are unfair. Does your focus on these unregulated products effectively re-criminalize cannabis?

Not at all. When we launched the medical [marijuana] program here in Connecticut, we wanted to create the best therapy science-based medical program in the country, and we did. Connecticut's program is largely, by reputation, in fact, the best medical program in the country. It was most rooted in science [and] medicine and administered by doctors, nurses and health care professionals.

When we launched the recreational program, I think the state wanted to replicate that. We have a regulatory system based in science, based in safety, and that's why you have licensed dispensaries where we, as a state, can effectively regulate dosage. We can regulate the amount of product out in the community.

We can do our best to keep legal cannabis products out of the hands of children and people who shouldn't use them — and to make sure we have a fair and transparent marketplace, among other values.

There's so many reasons why we want a properly regulated, fair, structured and thoughtful legal cannabis system.

These are products that are safe only for adult use. Period. That's the judgment the state Legislature made, and frankly, that's probably the judgment that 99.9% of doctors would make.

And the idea that we shouldn't have any rules is absurd. The idea that we should just let people in smoke shops sell totally unregulated, unlicensed, untested products that they know they shouldn't be selling — the idea that we should just let them do whatever they want and sell to kids (and, by the way, why don't we just let Juul sell vapes to 13-year-olds?) — I mean, where does it end? It's a ridiculous argument.

A recent ACLU lawsuit takes aim at Connecticut's "prison debt" law. Your office is tasked with defending the law, which can be used to force incarcerated people to pay for each day they spent in custody. The law is allegedly rather unique, and it tends to run against the political grain of most Democrats. Your job is to represent the state, but do you support the underlying premise of the law?

I don't know that it's unique. I haven't done a survey of the 50 states, but I don't think we're the only one. It's a law that's been around for a long time. It's up to the Legislature.

In our office, we place a premium on fairness and equity and doing justice where we can. As a state, we're always trying to do better. But at the end of the day, it's my job to represent the state of Connecticut and to enforce laws as they're written. It's not just true of me, but the attorneys general before me.

It is not just a matter of me deferring to the Legislature, it is literally their prerogative and authority to pass laws. It's not my role, especially in the middle of defending litigation, to second-guess them.

You've joined other states in seeking to ensure access to abortion drugs. Where do things go from here?

Let me be really clear about where Connecticut stands: Abortion is legal, accessible, and safe in Connecticut, and that's the way it's going to be.

We will not allow, as much as we can, any other state to come into Connecticut and tell us what to do with respect to women's reproductive freedom, health care, a patient's decision to have an abortion, or a health care provider's decision to perform an abortion.

I've been very clear: I will aggressively defend those rights as far as I possibly can.

Will there be a conflict between the prerogative of one state and another? Sure. Do I know how that will land? No, not yet. But as far as I can, I will defend the rights of Connecticut women, patients and health care providers.

Six months ago, I would have told you, like most people, that, OK, the Supreme Court says this is a matter for the states. We've been warned for a long time that that was the pro-life view of the law.

I said then that the fall of Roe was not the end of the debate. It was just the beginning, and that they would come for us.

My pro-life friends here in Connecticut said, "That's ridiculous," this is now a matter for the states; no one's going to try to pass anything like a nationwide ban on abortion at the federal level, or some sort of nationwide rule.

And then Texas happened, not only S.B. 8, but [U.S. District Judge Matthew] Kacsmaryk's decision where he is essentially trying, through judicial fiat — I should note, which is a markedly unconservative way to approach it, and exercised zero judicial restraint — goes and tries, in an activist way, to create a nationwide ban on abortion by outlawing mifepristone, which is responsible for half of the abortions in this country.

I don't think we could have anticipated that, so Democratic attorneys general, and my colleagues — frankly, I wish I had more Republican colleagues on my side on this — but, we're tired of taking it.

We're not going to stay on defense. And so we're on offense. We're on offense in federal court in Washington. We told the court that the FDA was wrong in attaching onerous regulatory provisions and requirements on the use of mifepristone, and we won.

We have a competing injunction in Washington that says mifepristone should be legal. More legal, even, than it is now — more accessible.

In the category of small mercies, I guess, the Supreme Court has said we're not going to rush to judgment. Mifepristone remains legal in this country. I take that as a good sign, but there's still a lot more litigation here before that's finally resolved.

--Editing by Kelly Duncan and Jay Jackson Jr.

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