Business Leaders, Massachusetts and State Regulators, Discuss Legalization of Marijuana

NORWICH — Top state regulators with oversight over marijuana in Connecticut and Massachusetts discussed the challenges of regulating a substance that remains illegal at the federal level, at a Thursday morning meeting hosted by the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut.

Michelle Seagull, commissioner of Connecticut’s Department of Consumer Protection, underscored in her talk that since the Connecticut General Assembly passed legislation to allow medical marijuana in 2012, her agency has regulated the drug with the same vigor as any medicine.

“We, from the very beginning, treated this product as medicine, as something that should be treated like a controlled substance just like any other kind of medication, and we’ve really tried to stay true to that pharmaceutical model,” Seagull said.

The event was sponsored by Herbology, a medical marijuana company currently planning a dispensary in Groton.

A presentation by Commissioner of the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission Kay Doyle outlined how Massachusetts has adapted and developed policies on the drug since 2016, when the state voted in favor of allowing the retail sale of marijuana to adults over the age of 21.

Massachusetts and Connecticut both legalized medical marijuana in 2012.

“Feel free to steal from us,” Doyle told the audience in reference to her state’s regulations and educational programs on marijuana. “We stole blatantly from other states. We all learn from each other.”

Although possessing small amounts of the marijuana has been decriminalized in Connecticut, the state has not yet legalized the retail sale of the drug. Democratic leaders in the legislature have indicated that they intend to debate legalizing the drug in the coming session.

Research and medical standards

“The way it works is there is total immunity from civil and criminal penalties for anybody who is a registered patient and has this product as long as they are following the rules,” Seagull said. “And to be clear, when I talk about immunity, I’m talking about state laws. Federal law ‘is what it is’ and nothing we can pass in Connecticut can change that.”

Connecticut currently has over 40,000 patients registered for medical marijuana, and over 1,200 physicians and advanced practice nurses who are registered to prescribe it. The state has 18 licensees for dispensaries, and there are 36 conditions that are eligible for treatment with medical marijuana.

Updated state regulations in the wake of legalization in 2016 included a vigorous research component, Seagull said.

“As with everything else, we really kept this very strict,” Seagull said. “We wanted to make sure this was real research and that the results of this research was something doctors could look to and feel comfortable about.”

Seagull said that her department has adopted regulations for marijuana that are modeled on FDA requirements for security, safety, and cleanliness.

Connecticut’s regulations allow for marijuana to be prescribed in raw flower form, pre-rolled for smoking, in vaporizers and vape cartridges, oils, concentrate, and certain edibles such as brownies — all sold in prescription containers. 

But Seagull said Connecticut does not allow marijuana in obviously recreational forms.

“We don’t have gummy bears. We don’t have sodas. Those types of product are unavailable here.”

The agency also has strict rules on advertising, Seagull said, and forbids health claims lacking grounding in medical research; limits which have been complicated by the recent legalization of hemp and CBD products by the 2018 Farm Bill at the federal level.

“Under the law in Connecticut, health claims are not allowed for hemp products, but we can only control what we can control. If the hemp is controlled in Connecticut and is manufactured in Connecticut, then we have some pretty strict standards. But there is a lot of stuff on the shelves in Connecticut that was manufactured elsewhere … and there is a bit of a ‘wild west.'”

One of her fears, she said, is that these products could give the public “a bad impression of the broader cannabis marketplace.”

Doyle explains lessons learned in Massachusetts

After two years of writing regulations, overseeing licensees, and various other legal and logistical procedures, Massachusetts allowed its first sale of recreational marijuana in November 2018.

Doyle said that her first piece of advice for Connecticut comes after the opening of a dispensary in Leicester.

“Do not open one of the first marijuana dispensaries on the Eastern seaboard, on a rural highway, the week of Thanksgiving, if it is also the only access road to the local Walmart. Black Friday was miserable for all concerned,” she said to some laughter from the audience.

Doyle described eight different types of licenses for recreational marijuana.

“Our licensing process is very thorough, much to the despair of some of the industry,” she said, “and we require a great deal of information up front, some of which pertains municipal local control. There’s a very thorough background check. We require them to explain their operations to us and how it will be done in compliance with the regulations.”

Doyle said that the lengthy process provides applicants with a thorough knowledge of state law and regulations.

Doyle also warned that marijuana cultivation uses a “tremendous” amount of energy, leading Massachusetts to limit the amount of electricity used by growers, and to encourage the use of renewable energy sources.

“I invite Connecticut to kick our butts,” said Doyle on the issue of energy use. “We have the spot as the nation’s leader now. Feel free to displace us and become number one, because we need to address this issue if we are going to have any kind of impact on climate change in this emerging industry and we need to do it on the early side.”

Doyle said that local legislation and zoning was an additional complication.

“Local control is very strong in Massachusetts,” said Doyle, explaining that towns may prohibit recreational marijuana businesses — but not medical marijuana facilities — within their municipal boundaries.

Doyle explained to the assembled audience that some municipalities in Massachusetts have restricted medical marijuana facilities to industrial zones, and have drafted local laws that have effectively kept local farmers out of the cultivating business.

Doyle also said that Massachusetts has made an effort to draft policies that are beneficial to communities that she said were “disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs.”

In Massachusetts, businesses owned by people of racial minorities, by veterans, by women, by LGBT persons or are disabled, are eligible to apply for an expedited licensing process, effectively a “fast pass to the front of the line,” Doyle explained, but at present only 18 percent of completed applications have benefited from an expedited approval.

On the future

After the presentation, both Doyle and Seagull took questions and comments from the audience.

East Lyme orthopedic surgeon Frank Maletz praised Seagull for looking at marijuana in medical terms, but he said he was hesitant about how the conversation around the drug has shifted toward the economic advantages of legalization.

“We’re focusing a lot on the economics, especially in the state, but to be truthful, there’s a lot more impact when it comes to the addiction problem that this state also faces.”

Maletz cited a 2018 federal study of the impacts of legalization in Colorado which said that an estimated 9 percent of marijuana users become addicted to the drug.

Another audience member asked Seagull about the potential for Connecticut to legalize the retail sale of marijuana to the general public.

Seagull answered that three committees in the state legislature last year discussed possible bills, but that none of the bills were brought to either chamber for a vote.

Seagull said that the state would still need to decide how it would be taxed, how it would be regulated, and whether legislation would be included to expunge criminal records related to the drug.

“The conversation is continuing, there’s momentum, but only time will tell,” she said.

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