High hopes for new pot laws

Growers are eager to start in state, despite strict, narrow regulations

Photo of Ken Dixon

California led the nation in allowing marijuana to be used for medical purposes, but last month residents of Los Angeles said enough is enough.

Tired of a proliferation of lightly regulated marijuana dispensaries that made pot available to any "patient," voters approved a measure to drastically scale back the number of shops allowed -- to 135 from 805.

In Colorado, state officials had trouble keeping up with -- and collecting taxes from -- many of the 1,000-plus marijuana farms, while people who were not sick easily obtained pot registration cards. The widespread availability of medical cannabis accelerated the movement toward full legalization of the iconic weed, which was approved last year.

But as Connecticut officials craft regulations that will determine how its medical marijuana law will be implemented, they are eager to avoid pitfalls of some of the 18 other states plus Washington, D.C., that have approved it since California started the trend in 1996.

In advance of an August vote on the rules, state officials did their homework. They studied the law in states like Maine, where patients and caregivers can grow their own; Oregon, which allows possession of nearly a pound; and New Jersey, where just last week the Legislature passed a bill that would allow children to use medical marijuana.

And their are differences between East and West.

"Unlike Colorado and California, which pioneered marijuana growing, we do not see traditional stoners," said Chris Walsh, editor of the Medical Marijuana Business Daily, a Providence-based trade journal that monitors the new pot industry. "By nature of the regulations and the rules released so far, you're almost guaranteed to get professional people in there with connections and money. Your average Joe is not going to get involved unless he partners with guys with deep pockets."

Up from underground

The regulations being developed for the Nutmeg State are nearly 100 pages long and detailed enough to try managing an industry that has been underground for decades, while addressing public safety.

"No other state is viewing it the way we are," said Connecticut Consumer Protection Commissioner William M. Rubenstein, whose office is charged with drafting the regulations and administering the program. "It's the design of the legislation. The idea was to make sure that people who have medical needs have access to medical marijuana, at the same time not diverting it away from medical use."

Ailments covered under the state's eligibility rules will include cancer, glaucoma, HIV/AIDS, Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis, spinal cord injuries, epilepsy, Crohn's disease, wasting syndrome and post-traumatic stress disorder. Other kinds of pain will not be covered, and patients will have to be at least 18 years old.

Instead of having heavy opiates like morphine and oxycodone confining them to bed, patients will be able to purchase up to 2.5 ounces of high-grade marijuana a month -- legally smoking, eating, inhaling vapors or applying skin salves -- to help overcome the pain of multiple sclerosis, or regain appetites curbed by chemotherapy. Marijuana candy and drinks will not be allowed.

There will be an as-yet-undetermined number of dispensaries, but each will have to be staffed by a pharmacist. The department will certify between three and 10 highly secured marijuana growing facilities.

East Coast states adopting the palliative use of the drug have learned from the West Coast, Walsh said.

"They all seem to say they're crafting the strictest bill in the nation," he said in a phone interview.

Maryland, which is the most recent state to approve medical marijuana, seems to be the tightest legally, he said. There, university medical research centers will establish dispensing programs.

Small growers

Walsh said much of the early interest in growing programs and dispensaries in eastern states seems to be coming from business professionals.

In a public hearing on the proposed regulations this spring, some would-be growers balked at a requirement to deposit $2 million into escrow to assure their performance. In response, the state relaxed a bit, and the regulations would now allow a bond or a letter of credit for the $2 million. This might give smaller growers a chance.

Joseph Palmieri Jr. owns a farm in Easton as well as Connecticut Tank Removal Inc., which has 50 employees on Burr Court in Bridgeport. He hopes to be a state-approved marijuana farmer.

"We're excited about the creation of a new industry," Palmieri, 42, said last week. "We've been working with the city of Bridgeport, which has been very receptive."

He will grow hydroponic tomatoes in his Burr Court building to illustrate his farming expertise for state regulators.

"We plan to be light-switch ready," he said. "I'm not looking for financial backers. I have a facility that I own already."

Palmieri believes his deep roots in the state will help his case.

"I hope we're through the process by the fall," said Palmieri, who grew up working at his family's landmark nursery in Westport. "You have to have this laid out and plan for it. I hope they take their time and do it in the right way. Everybody involved in this has a very big task."

High stakes

David Kimmel, of Ledyard, founder and president of Vintage Foods Ltd., which is working with Canadian and Israeli interests to prepare a bid for a growing operation in Connecticut, said he's interested in pursuing a strain of marijuana that has more of the medicinal qualities for patients and less of the psychoactive THC compounds found in high-grade strains -- essentially pot that will give cancer patients back their appetites, but not make them high.

"I understand this is an emerging industry," Kimmel said. "At the end of the day, it's got to be about the botanical compounds' interaction with cancer cells."

He said state officials are taking appropriate steps. "They understand there are potentially a lot of hurdles and it's subsequently a mistake to come out of the gate like a bull," Kimmel said.

Rubenstein's office is standing fast on requirements for testing batches of marijuana flowers for active ingredients to assure patients who buy a particular strain one month, can obtain the same strain, with identical effects, six months or a year later.

So far, 660 patients have been certified by physicians and 440 registration cards, which include security measures like holograms, photographs and shifting inks, have been issued by Rubenstein's office.

The department's goal is to get the secure growing facilities up and running, with dispensaries supervised by licensed pharmacists, throughout the state in the first three months of 2014.

"We're right on schedule for what we anticipated," Rubenstein said during a recent interview. He can't move forward licensing producers and dispensaries, however, until the legislative Regulations Review Committee approves them and also agrees to remove marijuana from a Schedule I drug, or dangerous and illegal drug, to a Schedule II medicine. That will come before the committee in August.

Gateway to legalization

Erik Williams, state president of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws and president of the Connecticut Medical Cannabis Business Alliance, said that the Department of Consumer Protection's changes are generally reasonable.

"One of the things learned from other states -- importantly for those investing time and energy and putting their lives on the line for a new industry -- is the importance of a regulatory body that can function and be partners," Williams said.

"I speak throughout the country," said Williams, who is also affiliated with a Colorado company interested in becoming a Connecticut grower and dispenser. Within 48 hours of obtaining the state license, Williams said his group can obtain seeds and start the growing cycle in a medium that includes shredded coconut shells. The plants should have harvestable flowers with 150 to 180 days.

Karen O'Keefe, director of state policies for the Marijuana Policy Project, which advocates for legalization, said recently that Connecticut will be among the most restrictive medical marijuana programs in the nation.

"But that is, in many cases, not in the best interests of patients," she said. "For example, the law itself doesn't let patients grow their own medicine, so they are left going to the streets or committing felonies (by illegally growing marijuana) in the meantime."

O'Keefe said she believes medical marijuana is a prelude to full-scale legalization.

"Americans are increasingly realizing that prohibiting marijuana is a failed and costly policy that is depriving governments of needed revenue, while creating a sometimes dangerous illicit market," she said. "Marijuana is objectively safer than alcohol, both for communities and for the individual, and it's time for a new approach. Popular support is increasing rapidly for treating marijuana like alcohol and I am hopeful that legislators will being to take the more sensible approach that Colorado and Washington have taken."

That is highly unlikely in Connecticut, Rubenstein said.

"We really don't have recreational use on our radar screen," he said. "The question about what else happens is outside of what we're doing. The Department of Consumer Protection's mission is to treat this just like other pharmaceuticals."

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