Stamford’s second medical marijuana dispensary opens with eye toward recreational cannabis expansion

Photo of Verónica Del Valle

STAMFORD — Almost a year after it was approved to operate, Fine Fettle Dispensary opened its doors Monday to medical marijuana patients in Stamford.

Tucked in the back of a semi-industrial part of Springdale, the 5,200 square foot facility is only the second medical cannabis dispensary in Stamford. Only qualified patients can browse the Fine Fettle shelves for the foreseeable future.

But even as visitors start purchasing their permitted monthly 3.5 ounces of product for the first time, a new, recreational path forward for cannabis is unfurling just as the Fine Fettle staff take their first steps forward in Connecticut.

"We're a medical facility as of today," Fine Fettle co-founder Benjamin Zachs said, adding that might not always be the case.

"We built our facility to be able to handle any level of traffic and any level of demand, whether it's for the medical patients or for what could be medical and adult-use."

Facilities that handle both kinds of cannabis sales are called "hybrid" dispensaries and require special authorization from the state Department of Consumer Protection. Zachs and his business partners have already started pursuing that process for their Stamford location, even though the dispensary is still in its infancy, he said.

Conversion is both a laborious and costly undertaking. Turning a medical dispensary into a hybrid one costs retailers $1 million in fees. That is, unless they embark on a joint venture with a "social equity" partner —Connecticut's term for cannabis entrepreneurs from marginalized communities. In the latter case, dispensaries are subject to half the cost — $500,000 in fees — instead.

The financial ramifications of conversion are only part of the story. Before obtaining a license, cannabis companies must also hammer out labor agreements with employees, meet the DCP's security requirements for dispensaries and secure the necessary zoning approval from city officials, along with other stipulations.

"We've actually done 99 percent of what we need to do, and now we're waiting for the producers and the state to say, 'Okay, go,'" Zachs said. Fine Fettle's two other Connecticut locations in Willimantic and Newington have already secured the necessary zoning approvals to run hybrid businesses. Fine Fettle also operates two hybrid dispensaries in Massachusetts.

Zoning approval is central to the future of Connecticut's sales. Every municipality in the state can ban recreational cannabis sales and many already have. Nearby Greenwich, Darien and New Canaan have all forbidden dispensaries from setting up shop within town limits.

Unlike their immediate neighbors, Stamford officials have not taken a legislative stance on recreational cannabis. In the absence of an official decision, state law prevails.

Connecticut's recreational use law stipulates that city legislatures and zoning boards both have the power to either prohibit adult-use dispensaries entirely or limit how they can operate.

Unless otherwise established, state statute says "a cannabis establishment shall be zoned as if for any other similar use, other than a cannabis establishment, would be zoned."

The most "similar use" for recreational cannabis in Stamford is likely medical marijuana, according to zoning officials: dispensaries could operate in six commercial and industrial zoning categories. However, due to Fine Fettle's pending zoning application, Stamford's chief lawyers are reviewing that assumption, confirmed Land Use Bureau Chief Ralph Blessing.

Despite the "really hard and diligent, focused work" Zachs said has gone into preparing for a potential foray into the recreational market, he's set on getting the new location up and running. Building momentum for a still-stigmatized business is difficult — "Advertising is hard," he said.

The location presents hurdles, too. Because of the local regulations surrounding where cannabis can go, dispensaries are sequestered from where people naturally congregate. It's just a reality of the business, according to Zachs.

"We understand that people are unsure of this use," he said.

But he won't stop trying to win the greater community over either. That's why he touts Fine Fettle's extensive safety protocols whenever he can. The 58 in-store cameras, the two alarms, the motion detectors in the ceiling, the chicken wire between various areas of the facility — Zachs said he thinks all these safety precautions speak to how serious his staff is about cannabis.

"These are safe, safe, safe places and run by medical professionals and amazing staff," he said. "And, you know, it's an amazing medication."