Change can be difficult for Connecticut’s 169 municipalities. It’s especially challenging for local planning and zoning commissions to wade into uncharted waters. And nothing is more uncharted than a medical marijuana dispensary.
Towns are grappling with the General Assembly’s decision last year to legalize the manufacture and sale of medical marijuana. To say that towns are unprepared to regulate such enterprises is quite an understatement. Since there was never any need to address them, marijuana dispensaries have gone unmentioned in local zoning codes for as long as zoning has been around.
Many towns have responded by enacting moratoriums on the establishment of such facilities until comprehensive sets of regulations can be drafted and enacted. Several towns — Berlin, New Canaan and West Hartford among them — have halted dispensary applications until they can get up to speed on where the best locations for the facilities would be, what kind of parking is necessary, and if signage of any kind should be permitted. State law already covers a host of other issues such as security and lighting.
The phenomenon is reminiscent of the cell towers that sprouted up all over the country in 1990s. Caught unprepared by the onslaught of applications, towns enacted temporary moratoriums. Some extended their moratoriums indefinitely or employed dilatory tactics to thwart construction. This invited costly litigation from powerful telecommunications companies. Connecticut towns that drag their feet on medical marijuana likely will suffer the same fate.
But there also is a substantial cultural shift that goes along with state approval of these facilities. After all, many towns, particularly those in rural and suburban areas, have never even had to deal with the arrival of methadone clinics and homeless shelters. The idea of hosting a facility that sells — however regulated it might be — a product that makes you stupid, and was heretofore illegal, does invite some skepticism, perhaps even some resistance.
My guess is the 37 applicants for manufacturing and distribution permits in Connecticut have their eyes set on a larger prize. While there is no doubt plenty of money to be made in the prescription pot market, the big money and the higher volume lies in recreational use.
The states of Washington and Colorado legalized recreational use last year. Huge crowds showed up on New Year’s Day — dubbed Green Wednesday by pot smokers — when Colorado’s stores began selling up to an ounce to state residents, or up to a quarter of an ounce for out-of-staters.
It goes without saying that those who are already licensed to sell medical marijuana will be better positioned to cash in if and when recreational sale becomes legal in Connecticut and the money spigot opens even wider.
The regional trend is plain for all to see. While only Colorado and Washington have legalized recreational use, every state in New England permits the use of the drug for medicinal purposes and, with the exception of New Hampshire, all have decriminalized the possession of small amounts of weed. Legislation or ballot initiatives for recreational use are expected in the next couple of years in Vermont, Maine, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire.
Look for the same logic in the recreational-use debate that lawmakers used when casino gambling gained increased acceptance in the 1990s. Politicians will reason that if everyone is smoking the stuff anyway, then the government might as well get a piece of the action.
Mark my words: the insatiable maw of state government will quash any moral or legal objections lawmakers have about moving pot squarely into the mainstream by legalizing it for recreational use. There’s one big difference, however. Pot dispensaries and farms employ very few people. Connecticut’s two casinos have provided thousands of jobs over the years and helped revive the southeastern part of the state that had been wracked by cuts in defense spending.
Under a deal first negotiated in 1993 by former Gov. Lowell Weicker with the Mashantucket Pequots and the Mohegans, the state receives 25 percent of gross slot machine revenues from the Foxwoods Resort Casino and Mohegan Sun. Since its inception, the deal has netted Connecticut more than $6.5 billion — $430 million alone in its peak year of 2007.
Will the sale of marijuana ever generate that kind of windfall? I don’t know, but you can bet the state will try mightily to get it.