Growing demand, community acceptance boost CT's medical marijuana program

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Litchfield County this spring will debut its first-ever medical marijuana dispensary in Torrington, about five years after city officials amended a key zoning regulation allowing local distribution of the drug.

Shortly after Connecticut legalized medical marijuana sales in 2012, Torrington created dispensary overlay zones allowing the retail clinics. The city's aim was simple: shorten commutes for thousands of local patients to access cannabis.

Those regulations piqued the interest of myriad entrepreneurs who wanted to open a dispensary; four received local zoning approval, and one was recently granted rights to open a facility by the state Department of Consumer Protection, which regulates the industry.

Torrington's willingness to host a medical marijuana dispensary is no longer a unique story in Connecticut.

Many cities and towns have come to accept, or even embrace the industry, implementing new zoning rules in recent years that allow for dispensaries and production facilities to help serve the 30,700-plus patients registered in Connecticut's medical marijuana program.

That heightened interest was reflected in the record number of applications β€” 76 β€” DCP received during its latest solicitation for new dispensary operators.

The agency in December approved licenses for healthcare entrepreneurs to open nine new dispensaries across the state, including in Newington, Meriden, New Haven and Stamford, which will double the industry's footprint.

By comparison, in 2016, DCP received just 19 applications and granted three licenses.

Medical marijuana in Connecticut was at one time, arguably, more controversial than it is today, with residents in many communities early on wringing their hands at planning and zoning meetings about the potential for dispensaries to bring crime, influence children and teens, and create other liabilities.

As the program matures into its fifth year, some attitudes appear to have changed, mirroring a national shift in public opinion, perhaps because there's not much evidence of those concerns having come to pass.

In fact, researchers at the University of California, Riverside, last year said medical marijuana dispensaries, which are equipped in Connecticut with state-mandated security systems, are not linked to an increased rate of violent crime.

Some local pot entrepreneurs say their facilities actually bring increased safety because of the security measures required by the state.

That's translated to a less contentious local-approvals process in some communities. Several newly minted dispensary owners interviewed by Hartford Business Journal reported little trouble winning permitting and zoning approvals. Others did report some pushback.

In recent years, officials in several municipalities β€” including Avon, Stamford, Westport, Milford, Old Saybrook, Winsted and Newtown β€” either approved applications for medical marijuana dispensaries or created overlay zones allowing the facilities.

"The values and benefits (of medical marijuana) are becoming well-known to everyone," said Ray Pantalena, manager of Affinity Health & Wellness Inc., which recently won a license to open a dispensary in New Haven. "The city was very responsive when we presented our plan. I did not have any negative feedback from local residents. It went pretty smoothly."

Pantalena, a pharmacist for almost 40 years in New Haven County, said he has witnessed a dramatic shift in acceptance for medical marijuana during his career.

His company has leased a former 7-Eleven convenience store at 1351 Whalley Ave., for its dispensary operation. The 3,000-square-foot facility, New Haven's first medical marijuana storefront, is expected to open in April, he said.

Pockets of resistance, however, still exist.

Towns such as New Canaan and Guilford have banned medical marijuana dispensaries and production facilities. North Branford, which temporarily banned the facilities last year, is currently reviewing whether to allow marijuana dispensaries and production sites.

And some towns that have approved dispensary zoning regulations β€” like Wethersfield β€” have gotten pushback from residents.

What's unclear is how municipal attitudes might change if Connecticut legalizes recreational marijuana use, which Gov. Ned Lamont said is a top priority for his newly tapped administration.

The majority of Connecticut residents β€” 59 percent β€” said they support legalizing recreational use of the drug, according to a 2018 poll by Quinnipiac University, signaling fairly broad acceptance, which will likely continue to grow as legalization in other states β€” including neighboring Massachusetts β€” is expected to further shed stigmas associated with using the THC-based drug.

Where to locate

Several new dispensary operators, many of whom are longtime pharmacists or healthcare entrepreneurs, and their brokers said they focused on leasing or purchasing commercial properties in areas with the largest underserved populations. They also sought spaces with the capacity to expand.

Lora Rae Anderson, a spokeswoman for DCP, said the state's "thorough" vetting process considers proposed site-plan applications, quality of care, local demand for medical cannabis and other variables before awarding licenses.

DCP, she says, looks at whether facilities are in safe locations, accessible to main highways, and have the capacity to expand. The agency also reviews sitemaps measuring a facility's proximity to nearby places of worship and schools.

The nine dispensaries recently tapped for licenses by DCP are expected to open in the first half of 2019, she said.

"There was a wide variety of applications," Anderson said. "We are happy that these spaces are being taken by medical facilities."

Torrington, Litchfield County's largest city, is an ideal location for a medical marijuana dispensary due to its accommodating regulations and large number of registered patients, said Thomas Macre, CEO and president of C-3 Ventures LLC, which recently won rights to open the city's first dispensary.

Martin Connor, Torrington's city planner, said residents overwhelmingly supported C-3 Ventures' proposal as well as others who sought commercial zoning changes to allow dispensaries.

"We heard from residents who are patients that had to drive to Bristol to pick up prescriptions," said Connor of the transportation barriers facing certain patients. "There is a big need locally."

C-3 Ventures submitted a "strong" application providing convenient access to Route 8, a main artery in western Connecticut, he said.

Macre, who also owns Orange-based medical equipment supplier Medtech Healthcare, said his group β€” including an equity partner, two capital investors, and a state-required pharmacist and dispensary manager β€” received a few public concerns about safety that were eventually quelled.

Real estate agent Bob Brown, of Torrington-based Cohen Agency Inc., is helping C-3 Ventures finalize its purchase of a multi-use property on Winsted Road.

Brown identified four locations for C-3 Ventures to consider in Torrington, but chose the Winsted Road lot at the preference of the city's zoning commission.

After expanding the facility, C-3 Ventures will occupy over 3,000 square feet at the former convenient deli and liquor store. Another 1,500 square feet on-site will be unoccupied.

C-3 Ventures expects to launch operations in roughly April or May, Macre said.

Willow Brook Wellness LLC also recently won rights to open a dispensary and plans to debut this year in leased commercial space at 1371 East Main St., in Meriden. Mary Morgan, Willow Brook's principal, pharmacist and dispensary manager, said the company's first-ever dispensary will hire at least three pharmacists, five dispensary technicians and a support staff.

Morgan said the Meriden facility will serve an underserved population within a half-mile of Middlesex County.

Bluepoint Wellness of Connecticut, which has operated a Branford dispensary since Sept. 2014, recently won rights to open another retail clinic in Westport. One of six applicants to receive Westport's zoning approval, co-founder Nick Tamborrino plans to open the new 3,500-square-foot site in partnership with West Haven marijuana producer Advanced Grow Labs.

Bluepoint's Westport application, Tamborrino said, was met with public concern at local planning and zoning meetings, as residents questioned the program's patient demographics.

Those concerns were subdued over six months, he said, when his group outlined the strength of Connecticut's medical marijuana program as one of the nation's best.

"We spoke the truth and knew what we were talking about at the public hearings," Tamborrino said of misinformation at town meetings. "It was obvious who knew vs. those who didn't."

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