Cannabis crew boning up Wednesday night. Credit: NORA GRACE-FLOOD / New Haven Independent

Days before Connecticut starts accepting applications for cannabis licenses, 50-plus home-growers, sellers, and consumers of the plant gathered to share business strategies, discuss the history of the war on drugs, smoke joints, order beer, and eat boxes upon boxes of pizza from East Rock’s One 6 Three.

They’re boning up on the rules and preparing to go legit in an emerging industry they’ve already entered. They also vow to keep their grassroots community growing as corporate vultures swoop into the marketplace.

The potrepreneur gathering took place at The Cellar on Treadwell in Hamden Wednesday evening. 

“You’re CannaWarriors, you guys fight, right?” called out one of the organizers, Cody Roberts. Everyone cheered.

It was the latest in a series of ​“vendor association meetings” hosted by Roberts and Joseph Raymond Accettullo.

At the sessions, participants come together to dream about alternative realities. Then they talk about how to make themselves ​“more marketable to the state” and work within the law. 

In addition to the weeknight strategy sessions, the community has begun testing the commercial waters on weekends, thanks to Hamden’s public and prominent ​“High Bazaars & Counter Culture Exhibitions.”

Accettullo and Roberts founded the conventions after cannabis was legalized in Connecticut last summer. They bring growers and sellers together to showcase their products, build community, and have a good time. High Bazaar has served as the unofficial way to distribute weed products in the period between Connecticut legalizing recreational cannabis last year and the upcoming roll-out of rules and regulations for dealers to open formal businesses.

“Regulations don’t breed community. Community breeds itself,” Accettullo said Wednesday night, looking around at the crowd of familiar faces surrounding him. Hundreds more people come through their weekend events, paying a $20 cover to listen to local bands while shopping and sampling everything from weed spritzers to tinctures to bud to edible cakes made with ​“Pick Your Own” Bishop’s Blueberries. 

Accettullo said vendors pay on a ​“sliding scale” for a table on a ​“case by case basis.” It’s ​“not about sales or pressure,” he said, but making sure that anyone who’s struggling can get a spot to advertise their brand.

Those ​“private” turned very public parties started outside The Space in July, ​“a legalization party that just kept going and going,” Accettullo said.

Accettullo and Roberts are able to hold their larger conventions, which have so far have received support from Mayor Lauren Garrett and no substantial challenges from Hamden police, because of allowable ​“gifting” policies in state law. 

“We’re just two white guys,” Roberts said of himself and Accettullo. ​“We’re willing to take the risks” of organizing such events in order to support the many trying to make a living through selling weed, a substantial proportion of whom are people of color.

Boning Up
Credit: NORA GRACE-FLOOD / New Haven Independent

Those nuanced aspects of legislation are one point of conversation picked up in the Wednesday night social equity-focused gatherings attended largely by vendors.

“The [state] legislative session opens on February ninth,” Roberts announced on the Cellar’s small stage Wednesday. Stay vigilant, he told his audience, and active. ​“They’re gonna be looking to close loopholes.”

“It’s a golden ticket if you’re properly prepared,” Accettullo told his audience, pointing to a white board detailing the costs of applications for cannabis licenses in retail, cultivation, delivery and more.

During Wednesday events, Accettullo and his team of activists, from an ACLU worker to his attorney to policy drafters and pushers, hold format flexible Q&As regarding how to reap the benefits of cannabis legalization.

They review topics like ​“creating an LLC, a business plan, marketing, all of that kinda good shit,” Accettullo said. 

“How many licenses can you apply for?” asked one woman named Tanya on Wednesday.

“Three at a time,” those on stage answered. ​“If you have a clean record.”

“What’s a clean criminal history? I can’t even count how many times I’ve been arrested for marijuana,” another man jumped in.

“Those criminal consequences still apply,” was the response. Connecticut’s version of legalization doesn’t erase the ongoing impacts of the War on Drugs, said Rafael Rosario, a communications manager for the Drug Policy Alliance.

On stage, Accettullo was candid. ​“I’ll be honest, maybe one of us can get these,” he said of the licenses.

But getting licensed isn’t the primary goal for many of the people who participate in Accettullo’s events. For some, the end goal is to keep developing their work simply by attending High Bazaars.

Another audience member asked: ​“The industry is dominated by the money players. How sustainable is something like this?”

“Very,” Accettullo stated. ​“We’re not going anywhere. Nobody shows up for weed like this community.”

Accettullo and Roberts said that, to them, High Bazaar primarily represents and creates resistance to corporate takeover of cannabis. They want to encourage ​“more communities to start their own bazaars.”

“A lot of people are in positions where they can’t afford dispensaries’ overpriced bullshit,” Roberts noted.

Hamden Pauses, Plans
Home-grower at a Hamden High Bazaar weekend party Credit: NORA GRACE-FLOOD / New Haven Independent

At the same time, Accettullo is one of the nine individuals serving on Garrett’s Cannabis Task Force, a working group of two Planning and Zoning members (Shenae Draughn and another to-be-named), two Legislative Council representatives (Ted Stevens and Justin Farmer), one member of the Police Department (Robin Manfield), and four mayoral appointments (Karen Bivens, Kebra Smith-Bolden, Stuart Gardner, and Accettullo).

“It’s always good to have the people who understand the issues because they live it,” Garrett said of bringing Accettullo on to the task force. ​“I think he can really help draft ordinances keeping in mind functionality.”

In December, Hamden instituted a one-year moratorium on recreational cannabis establishments. The idea, Garrett said, is to use that time to draft cannabis-specific ordinances that will ensure the town is able to regulate and properly tax cannabis.

For example, without creating specific provisions around cannabis cultivation or sales, cannabis would be treated like standard farming and/or tobacco distribution. Connecticut towns and cities are barred from taxing tobacco; but they will be able to place a 3 percent tax on marijuana sales. 

Shoreline towns such as Guilford or Madison have instituted early moratoriums as a means of figuring out how to keep cannabis out of their town. By contrast, Garrett said, ​“We want Hamden to be a place where we allow the growing, distribution and sale of cannabis.”

“I have established the Cannabis Taskforce for the purpose of drafting ordinances for the growth, distribution, and sale of cannabis. Please also make a recommendation for the location(s) for public consumption of cannabis and create a map for cannabis retail and other regulated activities. Equity must be the driving force behind this taskforce,” Garrett emailed the group on Jan. 10.

Kebra Smith-Bolden, a registered nurse and the founder of CannaHealth certification centers, is one of Garrett’s mayoral appointees.

Smith-Bolden said that before Hamden accepts applications for potential cannabusinesses, there is work to be done to make the process more accessible and equitable.

“Some of the things that make licensing an issue for people of color or people without money,” Smith-Bolden said, ​“is where you’re located: the cost of real estate, having to go through zoning, dealing with municipalities, all things that end up becoming quite costly.”

“We can remove barriers and obstacles through ordinances and regulations,” she said. 

Hamden should ask ​“what type of incentives are they offering these businesses to come to town? Are they welcoming? Have they already created a plan that welcomes people into the community?” Smith-Bolden said.

She said she’s inspired by Oakland’s Social Equity Program, a fellowship system that selects applicants and provides them with a shared commercial kitchen and hundreds of thousands of dollars from the city and state to ​“kick-start their cannabis edibles ventures.” 

Maybe a smaller-scale incubator could be launched in Hamden, she suggested.

It all comes down to ​“what kind of supports you offer,” Smith-Bolden argued. ​“Community engagement comes before these businesses come.”

In some ways, that’s where High Bazaar comes in. 

“The idea that you’re gonna get this ticket all on your own is the devil’s lie,” proclaimed Rafael Rosario during Wednesday’s event. ​“Lean on the people who are here, lean into the different expertises.”

New Haven native Brandi Marshall nodded along while standing by the back bar. 

Brandi Marshall: “Stigma sucks.” Credit: NORA GRACE-FLOOD / New Haven Independent

“Joe and Cody have found a way for me to put myself out there,” she told the Independent.

“My father was a heroin addict. I never sold crack, ​‘cause that’s not my thing. Alcohol’s not my thing. But I’ve been smoking weed since I was 14,” she said. 

“I sold bud in college ​‘cause I needed to. At 13, I was away from my home, no family.” But, Marshall added, she’s always kept that mode of income quiet. 

In college, she started cooking and later became a bistro chef. ​“We work for the elite,” she said of herself and her wife.

“I’ve never had the will to say ​‘fuck it’,” she said. Part of that, she said, is the stigma surrounding weed.

“I look like this and I smoke weed. The stigma just sucks.

“To be gay, to fight for gay marriage, then to be a woman, then to be an African American; I smoke this blunt because it helps me deal with all the bullshit.” 

In other words, weed is a fundamental factor in her life — but her life, unlike Accettullo’s or Roberts’, has never primarily revolved around pushing to free the plant.

With a wife, three kids, and limited resources, she’s also never been able to risk losing a job or getting arrested.

“I know a lot of people who did time for weed. I don’t have a record — the problem is I don’t have capital.”

Capital, Marshall said, is what she needs to begin the complicated process of applying for a cannabis food and beverage license and ultimately starting her own canna-focused restaurant.

Marshall, 42, first learned how to make cannabis-infused foods when her niece, who has lupus, asked her to make edibles for her as a form of self-treatment for inflammation.

“I’d been cooking since 19,” Marshall said, and smoking and selling weed for longer. 

“‘Put 2 and 2 together,’” her niece instructed her.

After meeting Cody at a CannaHealth Conference in New Haven, Marshall started following local cannabis groups like Green Media New Haven, the Cannawarroriors, and High Bazaar, discovering access to no-charge classes to better her craft, like lessons in dosing and infusion.

Now she creates meals like canna-chile with canna-cornbread, canna-helper (a spin on hamburger helper), infused barbecue chicken on yellow rice, and canna-creme brulee. 

Cannabis drinks are also on the menu, including ​“Hey Arnolds,” Marshall’s spin on Arnold Palmers that are made with ​“green” tea and local honey from Edge of The Woods.

“I’ve got the product. I need the capital,” she said. That’s one reason why she not only shows up to social equity meetings every Wednesday with the High Bazaar crew, but sets up a table each Saturday and Sunday at their Crestway tent parties. (Her son works as an EMT at the weekend events.)

“Hopefully I’ll find somebody who sees my goods” and decides to financially back her, she said.

The ultimate goal would be to open a tapas bar with live music — no alcohol served, just cannabis. 

“I’m a people person,” she said. ​“I’m gonna keep it intimate. Keep it comfortable and local.”

In the meantime, she’ll keep coming out to High Bazaar parties, planning sessions, and informal classes.

Other than the degree of profitability, the underlying intention of each initiative put forward by the group, from Marshall’s table of tapas to Accettullo’s Crestway extravaganzas, is the same.

“We come together and allow ourselves to eat properly,” Roberts said.

They mean that literally. A future upcoming event, Accettullo said, is a blind, stoned taste test of New Haven Pizza. This Wednesday featured One 6 Three; the week before it was Modern; the next week, people will judge their favorites.

“We use the bigger ones to elevate some of the smaller ones,” Accettullo said of each pizza order. ​“And what pairs better with cannabis than pizza?”

The crew’s commitment to continuing their high bazaars, despite skepticism and outright condemnation from some Connecticut lawmakers, is only growing as regulations change and tighten, Accettullo and Roberts repeatedly asserted. 

When the weather gets warmer, another unnamed leader told the Independent, the events will return to open outdoors with ​“incense, bubbles, and a little taste of what the ​‘60s were like.”

People depend on the Hamden High Bazaars each weekend to pick up their ​“medicine,” Roberts said. ​“Let everyone get their medicine in a safe and healthy environment.”

Safety, the organizers maintain, is a key promise of the High Bazaars. That’s why they called off their bazaar planned for this coming Saturday due to the expected blizzard.

The audience vocalized their disappointment at Wednesday’s announcement regarding the postponement of the party.

“Listen, I’ve done landscaping for years… The responsible thing to do is call off Saturday,” Roberts said.

The crowd clapped in support of the leaders’ decision.

“I hate weather,” Accettullo muttered into the mic, producing giggles from the vendors. 

“I like to steer the way things go.”