Workers cleaning buds at CTPharma (CTNewsJunkie / file photo)

With commercial sale of cannabis expected to begin in Connecticut later this year, state regulators said Friday they expect many of the 18 dispensaries currently serving medical marijuana patients to convert to hybrid business models that allow recreational sales. 

During a morning meeting of the Medical Marijuana Program Board of Physicians, Consumer Protection Commissioner Michelle Seagull said her agency would be assessing the medical dispensaries to ensure any plans to enter the adult use recreational market would not compromise services for the state’s medical patients. 

“Things we’ll look for: how are they going to manage the traffic flow so patients can get in and out without too much difficulty, [and] their plans to prevent supply shortages,” Seagull said. 

While Connecticut legalized recreational cannabis last year, the resulting commercial market is not expected to be operational until later this year. Earlier this month, the state approved 16 cultivators to move forward as social equity applicants, given special consideration and lower fees because their communities were disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs. 

However, the state’s medical program has been in existence for a decade and its dispensaries may be among the first businesses to sell the product recreationally. The state allows medical cannabis dispensaries to apply to convert to a hybrid model for a $1 million fee or a smaller fee for dispensaries that partner with social equity applicants through joint ventures. 

As that transition moves forward, Dr. Linda Barry, an associate professor of surgery at UConn School of Medicine, worried that medical patients may soon find themselves competing with recreational consumers.

“Isn’t there a risk that those who need it for medical reasons, you’re competing with those who are taking it for recreational reasons?” Barry said. “How do you assure that? Do they get priority? Do they get access to a different line? So that if they’re taking it and it’s effective for medical reasons that they’re not having to shop around?”

Seagull said her agency had the authority to limit the amount of cannabis per transaction sold to recreational users, if necessary. Earlier this year, the department increased the monthly allotment available to medical patients to 3.5 ounces per month. 

“If we’re finding we just have insufficient supply we’ve got to reduce how much adult users can purchase,” Seagull said.  

Seagull said participation in the medical program had plateaued recently. As of Friday, the state had roughly 51,000 patients in the system and about 1,575 practitioners capable of certifying new patients. 

That number increased this year, as a recent law made physicians assistants capable of prescribing the medication. Another provision of the law will go into effect next summer, eliminating a $100 fee registration fee the state currently charges medical marijuana patients. 

Members of the panel were unsure Friday how the looming commercial market would impact participation in the longstanding medical program. 

Consumer protection officials said that was because the experiences of other states vary depending on how their medical programs were administered prior to commercial legalization and what steps regulators took to preserve those programs. In Connecticut, medical patients will not be subject to the sales taxes assessed on recreational purchases. 

“It’s hard to say across the board because we’re not comparing apples to apples in each state. It is really interesting,” Rodrick Marriott, director of drug control at DCP, said. “Sometimes you see a dip and then a rebound because as the pricing differences over the tax structure become more apparent, people say ‘Well, maybe it is more effective for us to be in the medical program.’”