By Eric O’Connell/Zip06.com • 09/21/2021 03:40 p.m. EST
On Sept. 13 with overwhelming public support the Clinton Planning & Zoning Commission (PZC) voted against a proposed regulation amendment that would have allowed a retail marijuana store to open.
Earlier this year, Connecticut legislators passed a bill that legalized recreational marijuana use by adults in the state. As a result, it was up to local zoning authorities to come up with regulations that either allowed or did not allow for a retail cannabis stores to open.
The PZC Regulation Subcommittee had proposed a zoning regulation change that would have allowed for retail cannabis operations to work in Clinton by special exception in some of the business districts in town.
After hearing testimony from more than a dozen people mostly against the proposed regulations, the PZC voted to deny the application by a vote of six to one. Members Mary Ellen Dahlgren (D), Mike Knudsen (R), Eddie Alberino (R), Walter Clark (R), Martin Jaffe (D), and Alan Kravitz (D) voted to deny the application; only Democrat Will Benoit voted to approve.
The Public Speaks Out
As PZC members predicted, the virtual meeting drew a significant crowd of people who were interested in the regulations. In total, 17 different members of the public spoke, with 15 of those speakers being opposed to the regulations for a multitude of reasons.
Clinton Police Chief Vincent DeMaio started the public hearing by listing his concerns with the proposed regulations. DeMaio said that as other states have legalized marijuana, the black-market sales have also increased, not decreased as some had predicted.
DeMaio also expressed concerns about the ability to enforce the law against people who drive under the influence of marijuana.
“There is currently no standardized test like there is for alcohol for people who are driving under the influence of marijuana,” said DeMaio.
“I’m opposed to this as a resident, as a father, and in my role as the chief of police,” he concluded.
Many of the speakers who attended the meeting were current or former members of Partners in Community (PIC), which is a community group aimed at promoting healthy habits and preventing substance abuse among Clinton teens.
Kelley Edwards, the prevention coordinator from PIC, pointed out during part of her testimony that many banks do not recognize marijuana retail as a legitimate business, which creates the potential for crime.
“We would have a shop with a lot of cash and a lot of products in it. If you don’t think that would be a target, you’re crazy,” said Edwards.
Though retail cannabis is meant for adults, most of the speakers in opposition to the regulations focused their concerns on how a retail marijuana store would impact the town’s youth. Some argued a store would lead to easier access for teens who still have developing minds, others spoke about family members who struggled with addiction or mental health issues from an early age and their belief that marijuana started those struggles, and others simply felt the town’s youth would be bombarded with advertisements for the products.
Other speakers had concerns about the “types of people” a marijuana store would attract.
“I think this could open the door to way more of a culture than we anticipate,” Andrea Reu said.
Reu argued that there is a difference in people who consume alcohol versus cannabis.
“I invite members of [PZC] to visit a neighboring state’s dispensaries and see the kind of environment that is in the parking lot that surrounds it. We can pretend it doesn’t exist, but it does. We are a small community and that kind of element will have a significant cost not only on policing but have way more of an expense than a revenue,” Reu said.
Joe Alves also told the commission of his impressions of the people he saw in line at a dispensary in a neighboring state.
“I couldn’t tell the difference between that and a soup kitchen in Middletown or Bridgeport. Disheveled looking people, sloppy looking people, frankly—losers. That’s who was in that line,” said Alves.
Alves also took aim at State Senator Norm Needleman (D-33) who represents Clinton. Alves called Needleman “spineless” and criticized him for voting “with his urban brothers and sisters who are the force behind this legislation in legalizing marijuana” in favor of the law.
Not every speaker or commission member was against the proposed amendments, however. Eric Andersen spoke in favor of the proposal and argued that the cannabis products would be for adult consumption and, as with other similar substances, it is parent’s responsibility to educate children not to take them.
“It’s up to us as parents to make sure they understand the consequences,” said Andersen.
Andersen also argued that a store in Clinton would draw people from around the area who would bring their money to spend in town.
“Every time someone buys, they’ll be investing in our town,” said Andersen.
Later speakers corrected Andersen’s assertion that the money would go to the general fund, as the legislation has earmarked money from marijuana sales for certain projects.
Andersen also disputed that retail marijuana in Clinton would actively be market to the town’s youth or that smokers would cause pollution or trouble in town.
“We just want to legally be able to buy marijuana and to not have to travel far for it,” said Andersen.
Mary Jo Phelps stated she was speaking neither in favor or against the proposal but pointed out that the town already has multiple establishments that sell alcohol, which is a harmful substance that is legal.
When it came time for deliberation, the PZC members pointed to the majority of speakers being against the proposal as a reason to deny the application. Other reasons cited included the fact that marijuana is still illegal at the federal level, a reluctance to be known as the go-to pot destination of the shoreline, and fears that the state will expand the amount of cannabis stores allowed in each town (under the current regulations towns the size of Clinton would only be allowed one store, though there is speculation that will change in the future).
Commission member Will Benoit voted against the motion to deny, but did not explain why during the discussion. Benoit explained his reason after the meeting to the Harbor News.
Benoit pointed out that many younger people do not share the same concerns about the product as older people and a shop could be a draw to that population, which the town has been trying to attract.
“It seems like a missed growth opportunity for our town. Like many cities before us, a dispensary would increase foot traffic for restaurants, cafés, bars, and our developing cultural district, which could have helped turn Clinton into a destination here on the shoreline,” said Benoit.
“We could be using the revenue from legal cannabis for drug abuse treatment, education, and prevention around abuse, but instead we are choosing to turn a blind eye to the changes in our society and culture. The best way to teach children and adults about drugs and addiction is to demystify and destigmatize drugs in the light of day,” Benoit argued.
“We know all too well that kids can find unregulated drugs on the black market that are potentially laced with fentanyl or other deadly substances, which as a parent, is a much scarier prospect than facing the issue of marijuana head on,” he continued.
Benoit also said that he believes the local police and government would be able to regulate the substance in a meaningful way and, with the state making the substance legal, Benoit said it was missed opportunity to change the regulation.
“I believe that it is our responsibility as an elected commission to implement new laws and regulations in a way that is congruent with our town and its sustainable growth, so I am truly disappointed that we were unable to deliver in such a potentially important moment,” Benoit said.
At a meeting on Sept. 15, the Clinton Town Council members unanimously stated they were in favor of passing an ordinance that would also prohibit marijuana retail in Clinton. The council said that such an ordinance will be proposed at the next Town Council meeting. Any proposed ordinance would need to have its own public hearing where once again citizens can make their thoughts known about the issue.