State policy on medical marijuana shaping up

Hartford - Department of Consumer Protection Chairman William M. Rubenstein, whose agency is regulating the state's newly minted medical marijuana program, joked Friday that he has been dubbed "Connecticut's Pot Czar" by one newspaper, though he has heard that his counterparts in other states prefer the term "Hemperor."

Rubenstein, delivering opening remarks at a University of Connecticut Law School forum on the new state law, said the most common question people have asked him since the General Assembly legalized the use of marijuana last year has been, "Do you need any testers?"

Putting humor aside, Rubenstein went on to say that Connecticut has crafted a serious medical marijuana program for patients with 11 debilitating conditions and stressed that the law is "not a subterfuge for gateway into recreational use."

Lawmakers, lawyers, doctors and prospective growers and dispensers of the drug attended the event aimed at demystifying the state's medical marijuana policy, which its creators say is one of the strictest in the country. Twenty states and the District of Columbia have approved the use of medical marijuana.

The state Department of Consumer Protection, which plans to issues licenses to three to 10 producers of medical marijuana and three to five dispensary facilities, is accepting applications through Nov. 15. The department plans to award licenses around the first of the year and says the production and dispensary facilities could be operational by spring.

As of Oct. 22, the department had certified 1,182 Connecticut residents for medical marijuana use, including 76 in New London County. Patients must be 18 or older and have a prescription from a physician with whom they have a legitimate relationship.

Connecticut lawmakers had raised medical marijuana bills each year beginning in 2003. They passed a bill in 2011, but it was vetoed by Gov. M. Jodi Rell. The current law was enacted in 2012, and state agencies have spent the past year creating the regulations.

State Rep. Betsy Ritter, D-Waterford, deputy speaker and chairman of the Committee on Public Health, said patients showed an increased interest and insistence over the years as the medical community gave more attention to the palliative use of medical marijuana. Even her own mother asked her to pass a medical marijuana bill, Ritter said, which certainly was a different message than she had heard while growing up.

State Sen. Paul R. Doyle, D-Wethersfield, opposed the bill because the federal government considers marijuana a controlled substance and he had concerns that its proliferation could have a negative impact on young people. He said that the "comfort letter" that has since been issued by the Obama administration, which indicates the federal government won't enforce marijuana laws if states are strictly regulating the drug, has eased some of his concerns and that the regulatory framework put in place here is impressive.

Towns and cities that could be host to growers or dispensaries are grappling with land-use issues. Officials in Middletown and West Haven have approved leasing space to producers. Fairfield has rejected a proposed dispensary. Other towns have restricted them to industrial zones or placed a moratorium on applications.

David Kimmel, president and founder of Vintage Foods Limited in Ledyard, has discussed applying for a license to produce marijuana, but said Friday that he would not divulge the facility's location because the prospective community is "stuck" on the issue. He said he asked for advice from one town official who cited the federal law and told him the community would not be allowing a medical marijuana facility.

"This has not been a topic of discussion in southeastern Connecticut," Ritter said. "But I can tell you that talking to people in my district and others ... the most commonly mentioned example, California, is held up as an example of a path Connecticut doesn't want to go down."

California has a significant medical marijuana industry and is considering legalizing pot for recreational use.

The conflicting state and federal laws have left Connecticut attorneys "skating on thin ice" as they counsel those who would participate in the developing industry. The Connecticut Bar Association's ethics committee has discussed the Department of Justice's position on enforcement but has not determined whether it is a "safe harbor," according to the ethics chairman, John Logan.

Dr. Andrew L. Salner, director of the cancer center at Hartford Hospital, said medical marijuana would benefit the 2 to 3 percent of patients who do not respond well to the large arsenal of potent pain medications available to them. He cited the case of "Kathy," a 68-year-old with colon cancer for whom chemotherapy no longer worked. Her nausea medication didn't fully relieve her symptoms and her pain medications and synthetic marijuana, called Marinol, were far too sedating, Salner said.

Her nausea practically vanished when she tried marijuana, and her pain was lessened, but she felt guilty using an illegal substance and exposing a family member to law enforcement action. Salner said he did not want to discount the importance of regulating medical marijuana, but that he routinely prescribes drugs "much more powerful and potentially addicting than medical marijuana."

k.florin@theday.com

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