Exploring CT’s new complex cannabis market

For decades, legal marijuana was unthinkable. In recent years, US states have thought about the issue and voted to legalize cannabis, either completely, medicinally or without penalties for possession. Today, only four states – South Carolina, Nebraska, Wyoming and Idaho – ban it outright.

Connecticut was a little late to the sell-and-hold party. But since the General Assembly’s vote last June — and Gov. Ned Lamont’s swift signature — the state has moved at breakneck speed.

A market is being created. A number of regulatory issues are being addressed. By the end of the year, dispensaries should be up and running across the state.

Not in Westport though. At least, not yet.

Last September, the Planning and Zoning Commission unanimously approved a text amendment that temporarily bans cannabis establishments (with the exception of medical dispensaries) throughout the city.

The decision could change. The vote was taken because commissioners felt they did not have enough information at the time to explore all options.

Westport is already home to a medical dispensary. In 2019, Bluepoint Wellness opened its doors in a shopping plaza on Post Road. Despite some fears during the lengthy application and permitting process – it would attract stoners, turn kids into addicts or irrevocably change the city – it has worked quietly and unobtrusively. The only people whose lives have been affected are those with chronic pain.

CBD is different. It is often confused with THC, the psychoactive compound in cannabis. The latter makes users high; the first no. CBD is now legally sold to relieve medical conditions. New England Hemp Farm has also been in Westport since 2019, operating downtown without a hitch.

(Also, possession of up to 1.5 ounces of marijuana is now legal in Connecticut, for anyone 21 or older.)

Westport isn’t the only suburban town in Fairfield County to “just say no” to recreational cannabis sales. Weston and New Canaan have banned dispensaries. Wilton has put a moratorium on them. Darien, Fairfield and Easton have yet to report any zoning changes.

This information comes from Kaitlyn Krasselt. She is director of communications for the Connecticut Department of Consumer Protection. The state agency licenses and regulates grocers, plumbers, real estate agents and virtually any other licensed industry. On July 1, 2021, they added recreational marijuana sales to the list.

“We are starting the market from scratch,” explains Krasselt. “It’s not easy.” (It’s not their only new industry either. Sports betting became legal last October. It’s the DCP’s remit.)

Krasselt is not kidding when he talks about the complexity of the new market. By law, and the law is several hundred pages long, half of all grow and sell licenses must go to “social equity” applicants. Based on residency and income requirements, the goal is to ensure that all Connecticut residents, regardless of income or prior drug arrests, especially in communities with high prior conviction rates, have access to the new industry. A Social Equity Council will ensure funds from the adult-use cannabis program go back to communities most affected by the “war on drugs”.

The DCP authorizes both growers and sellers of recreational cannabis. But the entire supply chain must also be regulated. This means monitoring transporters, manufacturers, packers, food and beverage companies and retailers.

The department has been fielding questions not only from all those players, but also from municipal officials who were wondering what a dispensary could mean for their town or city. Some, like Westport, are taking a wait-and-see attitude while temporarily banning outlets and/or cultivation. Some have instituted a “no” plan.

But many other municipalities welcome recreational marijuana providers. They are eager for the tax dollars and/or boost to the economy that visiting consumers can bring.

License applicants have been placed in a pool. A lottery this week will determine the first batch of growers and sellers. There’s been a lot of interest from small business owners who want to get in “on the ground floor,” Krasselt says.

Wealthy investors are also interested. Those who do not obtain licenses can still participate. Because marijuana is still federally illegal, many banks are prohibited from making cannabis-related loans. People with deep pockets, of which there is no shortage in Fairfield County, can fill the void.

There is a lot to learn about the new industry. On May 19, the Southern Connecticut Chapter of the American Marketing Association is hosting an information session at Earthplace in Westport (and live streaming).

It’s called “CannaCurious? Marketing, Regulation and Social Equity.” Representatives from DCP, a cannabis PR firm, and marketers will be speaking.

A networking happy hour precedes the 7pm start. There will be drinks, but (probably) no gummies or other edibles.

Still: A Westport workshop on how to sell legal weed? In 2022, it is no longer a dream.

Dan Woog is a writer from Westport, and his “Woog’s World” appears every Friday. He can be reached at dwoog@optonline.net. His personal blog is danwoog06880.com.

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