A Joint Effort–As marijuana legislation rolls forward, pros prep for progress
With the state’s legislative session just beginning, Governor Ned Lamont will likely continue the push to legalize recreational marijuana. As part of that effort, Lamont sat down with the governors of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts in October to discuss a collaborative regional approach to cannabis legislation and policies. Those tracking the Connecticut cannabis industry sensed progress.
“It’s already legalized in Massachusetts,” says James Landau, partner at McCarthy Fingar in Westchester and co-founder of the firm’s Cannabis Law Group. “If New Jersey legalizes it, if New York legalizes it, if Rhode Island legalizes it—Connecticut, which out of all of those states probably needs the revenue the most, will be falling behind.”
There’s certainly money to be made. According to the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission, customers spent a total $393.7 million on marijuana products during the first year of legalized adult use. The same time period also saw tens of millions in new revenue for the state, which imposes a 17-percent tax on marijuana sales. In Connecticut, Democratic lawmakers and proponents have estimated that a tax on marijuana could generate up to $70 million in the first year and potentially double that amount going forward.
Landau and his co-founder, attorney Doug Trokie, participate in an energized networking group based out of South Norwalk called BOHCA—Business Owners Hemp and Cannabis Association. BOHCA co-founder Andi Gray says the group was formed to connect those who shared an interest in being part of the industry. “It’s about underlying community building,” she says. “It’s very much the wild west out there; the real challenge in the next ten years will be helping business people make good choices.”
Currently, 47 out of the 50 states have some form of legalization or pending legalization on the books; 33 states have adult use for medical and 11 for adult recreational. Connecticut’s participation in this fall’s summit may signal a group approach to taking the next step toward full legalization.
While Connecticut is currently cleared for medical use, Gray says the lack of recreational access can still hinder access for patients approved for medical marijuana. “One of the problems is that if I have a medical card that allows me to go into the dispensary, I have to go alone. I’m not accompanied by an expert. If I’m 90 years old with a walker, I have to go in on my own steam,” she explains. “I may need that product desperately but if no one can go in with me, that product is now restricted both medically and functionally.”
The same applies for patients who may be incapacitated by their condition or illness, or who may be anxious about being seen visiting a dispensary. Landau says legislators developing regulations around the issue need to first truly see it as medicine. “If they really believed it instead of pandering politically to make it look like they are doing something, they would become very granular on these issues, and really understand the people who need it for their health.”
If recreational marijuana is legalized in Connecticut, business owners are confident the positive impact on the small business community will far outweigh the controversy, particularly in Norwalk. “This is a small-business town. You walk down the road and you see some businesses doing well, some struggling,” says BOHCA’s Gray. “Here’s an opportunity to shift your business. You can morph, you can develop, you can learn about things that can give your business a future.”
Todd Dewitt, owner of Leven Cannabidiol in South Norwalk, says community networking enables the stigma around cannabis to be addressed in a positive setting. “You’re not going to quell anyone’s fears by not talking to them. BOHCA gives us an opportunity as business owners in our industry to make a connection with local politicians; those who may be interested but don’t want to pursue us because of political interests. It’s a happy medium,” he says.
Gray says change on the state level will only come through advocacy, championed first and foremost by those who understand what cannabis can provide to those who need it most. “What got it over the finish line in the western states was local involvement—people willing to go to the statehouse and speak with their representatives, from the heart,” she says. “They had to say: ‘Look, this is what happened to my spouse, my child, my mother, to me. This is what this plant did and it’s important that we recognize and make it available because it has such power.”
Dewitt echoes the emphasis on healing, saying he now sees his business as more of a mission. “When I started hearing customer feedback, their stories, it was different. Now I have an actual need to be here for these people.”