Patrons move through a line inside Fine Fettle Dispensary in Willimantic Credit: Hugh McQuaid / CTNewsJunkie

Connecticut launched its above board commercial cannabis market on Tuesday morning as seven medical marijuana dispensaries opened their doors for the first-time to adult recreational customers under a 2021 law which legalized the substance. 

The locations scattered around the state were seven of the nine hybrid operations given the okay by the Department of Consumer Protection to begin offering commercial sales in addition to serving the state’s roughly 50,000 medical marijuana patients.

A handful of customers had lined up outside the Fine Fettle Dispensary in Willimantic ahead of the location’s 10 a.m. opening. Sam Gabbey, a 32-year-old Coventry resident, was among the first in line. Gabbey, a long time cannabis user, said it was about time Connecticut joined its surrounding states in permitting legal sales.

“It’s a sigh of relief, now knowing we’ve got a clean product and not having to worry about getting stuff off the streets anymore,” he said. “It’s a relief knowing that our elected officials finally are doing something right for us.” 

While Gabbey spoke, Fine Fettle’s staff circulated among the dozen or so customers waiting in line. They checked IDs to ensure that patrons were at least 21 years old — the legal age to purchase cannabis in Connecticut. 

Sam Gabbey, among Connecticut’s first legal recreational cannabis customers Credit: Hugh McQuaid / CTNewsJunkie

On Tuesday, Gabbey and other customers were able to purchase up to a quarter ounce of product per transaction. The state DCP required the transaction cap as the new market got off the ground in an effort to ensure enough cannabis remains available to support both the commercial and medicinal markets. State officials expect to reevaluate those limits over time. 

Inside the dispensary, where the sweet, skunk-like odor of cannabis hung in the air, staff had set up separate lines to serve medical patients and recreational customers. Greg Young, Fine Fettle’s vice president of marketing, said the dispensary also bulked up its staff ahead of the recreational launch.

“We did a huge hiring push,” Young said. “Over a hundred new employees actually joined in the last month to make sure we were ready to provide the same level of service.”

Gov. Ned Lamont’s office expects the new industry to create hundreds of jobs as new businesses continue to roll out over the coming year. In a press release, Lamont, who signed the 2021 law, said his administration would work to ensure the industry remains safe and inclusive.

Inside Fine Fettle Dispensary Credit: Hugh McQuaid / CTNewsJunkie

“Today marks a turning point in the injustices caused by the war on drugs, most notably now that there is a legal alternative to the dangerous, unregulated, underground market for cannabis sales,” Lamont said.

That war on drugs — and its impact on underserved communities across Connecticut — was a paramount concern for many of the lawmakers who crafted the legalization bill. The law created a social equity fund supported by cannabis taxes and fees to reinvest in impacted cities. 

Three taxes will apply to recreational cannabis sales in Connecticut including the 6.35% sales tax, an additional 3% tax for the municipality where the dispensary operates and a scaling tax of between 10% and 15% based on the product’s THC content. 

The law also attempts to prioritize local business owners from those communities as the state awards licenses to grow and sell cannabis. And while dispensaries already operating in the medicinal field beat those social equity applicants to the punch on Tuesday, the state expects dozens more to come online later this year. 

On Monday, Sen. Gary Winfield, a New Haven Democrat who championed the cannabis legalization law, said he and other proponents would be keeping an eye on the emerging market to ensure it is equitably rolled out. Many of the equity applicants who the law seeks to prioritize  lacked the resources to be among the first businesses in the market, he said. 

Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven Credit: Hugh McQuaid / CTNewsJunkie

“I think it’s difficult,” Winfield said. “What we’re saying is people who don’t have access to a lot of the stuff you need in order to run one of these businesses, we want them in and we can do a lot of things to try to make that happen but it still doesn’t take away from the fact that many of these people who want to be in that space are starting from not very much.”

One way in which the law sought to address that problem was to permit “Equity Joint Ventures,” or businesses at least 50% owned and operated by an individual from a disproportionately impacted area who are partnered with an existing medical marijuana business. 

Rick Carbray, CEO of Fine Fettle, said he expected to open an Equity Joint Venture in Manchester early next month.

“That will be the first EJV to open in Connecticut,” Carbray said Tuesday.

In the meantime, Windham Mayor James Bellano said he expected the new retail establishment at Fine Fettle would be a boon to the Willimantic community, especially given that the nearby town of Mansfield is home to UConn’s Storrs campus. Those students who choose to travel to Willimantic in order to purchase cannabis may also patronize other Willimantic businesses, he said.

Patrons wait outside Fine Fettle in Willington Credit: Hugh McQuaid / CTNewsJunkie

“They may go to McDonalds or get a pizza,” Bellano said. “They’ll visit other stores. They’ll buy gas. They probably won’t go to the hardware store — but they might and they’ll have other economic opportunities as well.” 

Tuesday’s opening of recreational sales may also see some Connecticut residents who had previously refrained from partaking in cannabis opting to try out the substance for the first time. Gabbey, who had been using cannabis for several years, offered some advice to users planning to try it out: take it easy.

“Listen to your bud-tender at the window. Don’t go gung-ho,” Gabbey said, “or your day might be ended a little quicker than expected with a good nap.”