Michelle Seagull, the state’s commissioner for the Department of Consumer Protection, told the assembled audience at a business breakfast hosted by the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut that the state still has many details to iron out before opening up applications for marijuana licenses.
In comments to CT Examiner, Seagull suggested that a timeline originally anticipated by legislators for sales to begin next summer would likely be delayed until the end of next year.
“We’ve been suggesting that there will likely be sales by the end of 2022, and we’re still aspiring for that,” Seagull told CT Examiner. “Obviously, we have to see how things play out in the next few months.”
Seagull said the Department of Consumer Protections still has many details to iron out before opening up applications for marijuana business licenses, including what documentation is necessary to prove that one qualifies as a social equity applicant. Many of those decisions will be made by a social equity council, the 15-member group recently appointed by Gov. Ned Lamont and state lawmakers.
In response to an audience question about how the state will prevent “large corporations trying to circumvent rules” to obtain social equity licenses, Seagull said that responsibility lies with the council, which will “need to take a look at ownership and corporate documents to understand who truly controls the business.”
The panel, which took place at the Holiday Inn in Norwich, also included Kurt Smith, who works for Fuss & O’Neill helping marijuana facilities with planning, permitting, design, and construction. He shared that from his vantage point, every business can have a role to play in the marijuana industry.
“They’re creating an entirely new industry that’s going to reach all of the businesses in this room,” Smith said. “The capital-intensive nature of this business makes it difficult for these companies to start up and have all of their own infrastructure, like HR and IT departments, so I think the ancillary business market is going to see that there is a lot of opportunity here.”
Smith also co-founded Four Score, a licensed marijuana retailer and cultivator in Charlton, Massachusetts. He said Connecticut should follow in the state’s footsteps by creating funding for social equity businesses to get off the ground, as “many of the people who get social equity licenses won’t just have $20,000 sitting around to hire an architect.”
This work is personal to Smith, who shared that he has been a medical marijuana patient since 2015, as a result of a spinal injury. Smith said that if medical marijuana were not legal, his doctor would be treating the condition with opioids, and described his impression of the medical industry in Connecticut as a “truly pharmaceutical experience,” complete with medical records and MRIs before he received approval.
“It’s going to take longer than everybody thinks,” Smith said. “It’s not going to happen on that timetable, because it always takes extra time to get these things right.”
Kyle Zrenda, an attorney at Suisman Shapiro, outlined how the law legalizing recreational marijuana could impact businesses in the region. When new regulations go into effect next July, most businesses will no longer be able to decide not to hire an applicant due to a positive result for marijuana on a pre-employment drug test, and will not be able to fire an employee for off-duty marijuana use unless they already have a written policy against it in place.
“Even if they don’t intend to terminate someone for using cannabis, if they happen to terminate someone who does use cannabis, that could be a plausible cause of action, so employers don’t want to hurt themselves by not formulating policies like those contemplated by the bill,” Zrenda said.
Zrenda also outlined new responsibilities and restrictions on landlords, who will still be allowed to prohibit smoking on their properties, but most landlords will not be able to restrict possession or consumption of legal marijuana.
Rayallen Bergman, prevention coordinator for Norwich Youth and Family Services, said he decided to come to the panel to learn more about how the Department of Consumer Protections is planning to roll out the program over the next year.
He said the conversation would help inform his work, as his city is currently deciding whether to allow marijuana businesses. At this point, Bergman said he anticipated Norwich would take a wait-and-see approach, ensuring that they have time to put prevention measures in place for underage consumption.
Other attendees hoped to learn more about the industry rollout from a business perspective, as they prepare to apply for licenses and perhaps found marijuana companies themselves. One of those prospective business owners, Matthew Ossenfort, said he was considering pivoting his career after 18 years in fashion to enter the marijuana industry.
During a Q&A portion of the event, Ossenfort asked Commissioner Seagull about whether the Social Equity Council would consider expanding social equity license qualifications to include race, gender, and sexual identity, to more explicitly prioritize minority participation.
“I hope the commissioner takes that question seriously, because my biggest fear is that if they only look at qualifications based on income, a bunch of licenses are going to go to people who can’t afford to actually get these businesses up and running, and the other licenses will all go to millionaires. The middle class should have a way into this industry, too.”