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Regulations Review Committee questions Consumer Protection Commissioner and attorneys (Christine Stuart photo)

The packed hearing room erupted in cheers Tuesday when members of the Regulations Review Committee approved the rules for how medical marijuana will be grown and dispensed in Connecticut.

The voice vote came after more than two hours of questions about how the federal government would view the state’s decision to regulate the industry and change how marijuana is classified.

The vote clears the way for the Department of Consumer Protection to license between three and 10 marijuana producers and dispensaries by January.

Producers and dispensers will be able to apply for a license by the middle of September and the application period will last 60 days. Consumer Protection Commissioner William Rubenstein will then evaluate the applications and decide how many licenses’ to grant based on the number of patients approved by a physician to use it. He said companies looking to grow marijuana will receive a license in January 2014 and could be distributing to patients in the spring of next year.

Tracey Gamer-Fanning, a cancer survivor and president of the Connecticut Brain Tumor Alliance, was ecstatic about the decision. Wiping tears from her face, Gamer-Fanning said “this day has been a long time coming.”

Gamer-Fanning who is celebrating her 43rd birthday today said it’s the best birthday present she could have ever gotten. She was diagnosed with a brain tumor when she was 36 years old and she said the medication and pills make her shake and vomit. She said marijuana stops her from having “disparate tremors, and shaking, and seizures and unbearable amounts of pain and sadness and fear.”

“I’m not a criminal,” Gamer-Fanning said. “It helped me get my life back.”

Rubenstein whose office is in charge of granting the licenses to producers and patients said there are 881 individuals who have applied for cards that allow them to purchase and carry marijuana. There are about 558 who have already been issued cards. A physician must approve the use of medical marijuana by the patient before a card is issued.

The qualifying medical conditions to receive medical marijuana in Connecticut include cancer, glaucoma, HIV, AIDS, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, damage to the nervous tissue of the spinal cord with objective neurological indication of intractable spasticity, epilepsy, cachexia, wasting syndrome, Crohn’s disease, or post-traumatic stress disorder. Other diseases or debilitating conditions can be added by Rubenstein in consultation with an eight-member board of physicians.

During Tuesday’s meeting, some members of the committee sought assurances from Special Counsel to the Attorney General Robert Clark and and Assistant Attorney General Mark Kohler that the federal government wouldn’t come in and shut down the operation, and were disappointed when none were forthcoming.

“We are neither required to, or capable of predicting how a court would rule on a matter of such unsettled law,” Clark told the committee.

But he said that Connecticut’s treatment of marijuana is more consistent with other East Coast states like New Jersey and Maine. The regulations treat marijuana like a pharmaceutical substance.

Kohler said the state came up with a careful and comprehensive regulatory regime for the drug.

Sen. Leonard Fasano, R-North Haven, said he’s afraid the comprehensive nature of the regulations will work against the state and encourage the federal government to challenge it.

“You don’t pull on Superman’s cape, you don’t tug on that cape,” Fasano said roughly quoting Jim Croce’s song “You Don’t Mess Around with Jim.”

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Consumer Protection Commissioner William Rubenstein (Christine Stuart photo)

He said there are 11 U.S. Attorney letters, which have said “if you authorize it, you’re in trouble.”

One of them was written by Connecticut’s former U.S. Attorney David Fein and quoted by opponents of the policy during Connecticut’s 2012 debate.

In a 2012 letter to Sens. Michael McLachlan and Toni Boucher, Fein said “House Bill 5389 will create a licensing scheme that appears to permit large-scale marijuana cultivation and distribution, which would authorize conduct contrary to federal law and undermine the federal government’s efforts to regulate the possession, manufacturing, and trafficking of controlled substances.”

That letter, and the possibility that Connecticut would be out of step with the Controlled Substances Act, scared lawmakers.

“I have grave concerns,” Sen. Paul Doyle, D-Wethersfield, said. “If you could provide some comfort that it’s not abused down the road like other states . . .”

Rubenstein assured Doyle that he listened and read every word of the 2012 debate in both the House and the Senate and worked hard to make sure the intent of the bill was reflected in the regulations.

The agency worked hard to make sure patients who needed the medication weren’t denied a pathway, he said. But it also included strict controls on the marketing, dispensing, and advertising of the product.

It’s those strict rules that had Fasano wondering if it wouldn’t be better for the state to have less comprehensive regulations.

“We go this far, and this much in your face. It makes me nervous,” Fasano said. “We are authorizing. We’re controlling. We are setting up a scheme that authorizes its use.”

Rep. Vincent Candelora, R-North Branford, wanted to know if the state would be testing for THC levels in the marijuana being grown.

Rubenstein said the state would be testing each batch of marijuana and an active ingredient profile will be created for each batch so patients know what they’re getting. He said the active ingredient labeling will also need to be attached to the drug. He said it’s also required that the marijuana be named based on the active ingredient profile.

Rep. Selim Noujaim, R-Waterbury, said most producers are not coming to Connecticut from other states because they have compassion for patients in pain. “It’s a business,” he said. “Sometimes I say we should call it like it is — instead of saying ‘I have compassion and I want to do it because people need it,’ when it’s a business.”

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Ethan Ruby, president of Theraplant LLC (Christine Stuart photo)

Ethan Ruby, president of Theraplant LLC, wants to be one of those producers.

He said the reason it’s going to succeed is because it is a business.

“Running this correctly is going to ensure the success of it. We are going to take it very seriously from a financial and a patient point of view,” Ruby said.

As far as Fasano’s argument is concerned, less regulation would allow Connecticut to end up like California with dispensaries on every corner, Ruby said. “The federal government has not gone into New Jersey. The federal government has not gone into Rhode Island where the regulations are very, very strict. The federal government has only had problems in states where the regulations are not so strict.”