Screenshot of Rick Garza, agency director of Washington’s State Liquor and Cannabis Board

A recent surge of Connecticut towns banning the coming sale of recreational cannabis mirrors trends in other states where the substance has been legalized, according to a Washington state regulator who spoke Tuesday with the Social Equity Council. 

Since June, when Connecticut legalized recreational cannabis, several municipalities have banned or delayed its legal sale. Shoreline towns including Clinton, Guilford, Madison and North Branford have taken steps to prevent retail locations, according to the New Haven Register. Meanwhile on the Massachusetts border, Enfield has also banned cannabis sales, according to the Journal Inquirer

Those efforts are proactive — the state’s retail cannabis industry likely won’t be ready to launch for another year — but not novel. Some towns and counties in Washington state took similar actions after voters there legalized recreational cannabis through a ballot question back in 2012. That’s according to Rick Garza, agency director of Washington’s State Liquor and Cannabis Board.

During a Zoom call with members of Connecticut’s Social Equity Council, Garza said the bans were a response to his state’s political reality at the time. About 44% of voters objected to the cannabis legalization question. 

“They didn’t want to see oversaturation of retail outlets for cannabis,” Garza said. “People were concerned. We saw that cities and counties around the state, because they had the authority, were creating bans and moratoriums for grow, for processing, for retailing. Colorado saw the same thing.” 

Garza said those politics contributed to a state decision to set limits on the number of licenses issued for various businesses associated with the cultivation and sale of cannabis in Washington. The caps, combined with a huge influx of business applicants, left some communities including the communities most damaged by the war on drugs feeling boxed out of the industry. 

“I just want you to be aware that there will be quite a pushback from the community, especially communities of color who will feel like, ‘Wait a minute,’” Garza said. “They pushed back very hard against the state and the liquor and cannabis board saying, ‘You created a program that left us out of being involved in the cannabis industry.’ And that is true.”

In many ways, Connecticut’s law is designed expressly to avoid the situation Garza described. The law requires that half of cannabis business licenses go to applicants from areas with high rates of poverty, drug convictions, and unemployment. The Social Equity Council he addressed is responsible for guiding that process. 

On Tuesday, the panel’s co-chair, Andrea Comer of the state’s Consumer Protection Department, said her agency will ultimately determine the number of business licenses issued in Connecticut based on ensuring a balance of cannabis supply. 

“[The agency will seek to] make sure there isn’t an oversupply or an undersupply. Also, towns have the opportunity to say ‘We do not want to have cannabis businesses in our municipality. So that will also factor into zoning,” Comer said. “Obviously we can’t zone for a business in one of those cities or towns.”

Garza said Washington initially had some difficulty balancing supply of cannabis for its retail locations, which led to heavy fluctuations in the price of the substance. At first, prices spiked when growers could not meet demand. Later, more growers came online and the state was oversupplied, he said. 

“The prices tumbled. We were selling grams for less than what they were in the illicit market,” Garza said. “Within a year and a half, we had overwhelmed the illicit market.”

During Tuesday’s meeting, Garza also warned the Social Equity Council that availability of technical and legal assistance, as well as access to financial capital can give already-wealthy business applicants a leg up in the new industry. He urged Connecticut to consider backing loans for applicants in impacted communities and ensuring those prospective business owners have access to technical assistance to navigate the complicated application processes.

“Because we experienced it, people who have the money will have the lawyers to help them get through this application process quicker and faster and I can tell you where those folks lie: they’re typically not in communities of color,” Garza said.