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Massachusetts cannabis commissioner gives legalization lessons for Connecticut

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Norwich — Lesson number one if you're legalizing the recreational use of marijuana: Do not rush those tasked with drafting regulations.

Lesson number two: "Do not open one of the first dispensaries on the entire Eastern Seaboard on a rural highway the week of Thanksgiving if it is also the only access road to the local Walmart. Black Friday was miserable for all concerned."

This was some of the advice that Kay Doyle, commissioner of the Cannabis Control Commission of Massachusetts, gave in Norwich on Thursday.

The Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut held a breakfast and expo about the business of cannabis. Along with Doyle, the other main presenter was Connecticut Department of Consumer Protection Commissioner Michelle Seagull, who discussed the state's medical marijuana program.

The sponsor of the event was Herbology, the brand name for the Illinois-based company Grassroots Cannabis.

Herbology is working on opening a medical marijuana dispensary in Groton. The company told The Day in September 2019 the dispensary was slated to open by the end of October, and said on Facebook in November it anticipated opening the location in January.

Herbology pharmacist Kate Morrison told The Day on Thursday that a change was made to the plans but the final plans have gone to the state, and the company is hoping to open the Groton location this spring.

She told the crowd that Herbology's Connecticut team is made up of local pharmacists and other local employees, and that company members are eager to get to know those in the room Thursday in the coming months.

Seagull said she could not comment on reasons for the holdup because that information is proprietary but said DCP is working with Herbology. The company was one of nine to which DCP awarded a license in December 2018, and Seagull said the other eight dispensaries have opened.

Addressing the room Thursday, Seagull said "it's anybody's guess as to whether" a bill legalizing recreational marijuana will pass.

As for medical marijuana, she said Connecticut currently has 40,035 patients and 1,213 physicians, and the number of eligible medical conditions has grown from 10 to 36. Seagull spoke about the state's research, noting that Yale School of Medicine is working with a producer on a study.

Doyle said that Connecticut's cannabis research program "is one of the best if not the best in the country," later adding, "We aspire to Connecticut's research programs."

She invited Connecticut to "kick our butts" on conservation, noting that Massachusetts put wattage limits in place because cultivation facilities "are a tremendous use of energy."

In the question-and-answer session at the end of Thursday's event, Dr. Richard Fu asked if there will be an energy requirement in Connecticut, as well. Seagull said there are currently no such requirements for medical marijuana, but she thinks it's a good idea.

Fu is the president of the South Windsor-based company Agrivolution LLC, which provides lighting and other technologies for farms, and he said he came to the event to learn about the regulatory side of cannabis.

Sitting next to him was Dr. Frank Maletz, an orthopedic surgeon and member of the Opioid Action Team in New London.

His challenge to Seagull is that Connecticut keep marijuana medical, look beyond the economic impact of legalization, and be "the number-one state in the union to do it right and not make any of the former mistakes" of other states.

Challenges and opportunities in Massachusetts

Another lesson from Doyle is to think about zoning, because secluding marijuana operations in industrial districts can shut out farmers.

She also spoke about Massachusetts' considerations of equity. In addition to existing medical marijuana operators, the state has "empowerment applicants" who help communities disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs, and their applications are reviewed faster, Doyle said.

But she said the state still only has 24 economic empowerment applicants getting through the process, compared to 234 experienced medical operators.

"Key is access to capital," Doyle said. "Because banking is not readily available to these small businesses, they are reliant on private equity."

Massachusetts recently licensed recreational marijuana delivery. Some places are excluded, and individual municipalities can ban cannabis. While towns must vote to ban most marijuana establishments, the opposite is true for "social consumption," Doyle said: They must vote to opt in.

Massachusetts has a pilot program in 12 municipalities for social consumption, essentially cannabis cafes where people can consume together. Patrons can only consume foods that are shelf-stable and not prepared on-site.

e.moser@theday.com

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