Sometimes the licensing authority of an attorney general is more effective than the arrest powers of a police officer.
Connecticut officials are counting on that strategy to remove illegal and potentially dangerous marijuana products from smoke shops.
State Attorney General William Tong was in Stamford Tuesday to announce the latest in a crackdown that already has his office suing five Connecticut smoke shops over the sale of products that contain illegal amounts of tetrahydrocannabinol – THC – the substance that creates the high associated with marijuana use.
The illicit products are all the more alarming because they are marketed to teens, Tong said during a press conference at the headquarters of Stamford police, who recently raided three smoke shops in the city simultaneously.
As with the other smoke shops in the state, Tong now is taking legal action against Stamford’s Zaza Smoke Shop II, Breeze Smokeshop, and World’s Exotic Smoke Shop for alleged violations of the Connecticut Unfair Trade Practices Act.
“It is legal to use marijuana for recreational purposes but that does not mean anyone can sell cannabis products,” Tong said. “Any product with more than .3 percent THC has to be sold through a licensed dispensary.”
In Connecticut, marijuana products may be sold only in the regulated market, and must meet testing and packaging requirements, Tong said.
The contents of black market products – including edibles, vape cartridges and pre-rolled marijuana cigarettes – are unknown, he said.
“An edible should have no more than 5 milligrams of THC, but we have seen bootleg edibles with THC levels as high as 600 milligrams,” Tong said. “This stuff is totally unregulated. We have no information about how these products are made, where they are made, what’s in them, whether they are safe.”
During the three raids in Stamford late last month, an investigator from Tong’s office working with Stamford police confiscated more than 6,000 items, Tong said. They include illegal products high in THC such as delta-8 THC, delta-8 THCO, delta-9 THCO and others, Tong said.
“Delta comes from hemp,” a cannabis plant that contains much less THC than marijuana, he said. “They use a nasty chemical to juice the THC content in hemp to produce a high.”
A fear is that some illicit products could contain fentanyl, Tong said. Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid that is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine. The synthetic opioids are the drugs involved in most overdose deaths in the U.S., according to the National Institutes of Health.
It takes very little fentanyl to produce a high, so it’s a cheap, but deadly, additive, according to the NIH.
“These illegal products could have anything in them,” Tong said.
His office will test confiscated products for fentanyl, Tong said.
Police in these cases can charge smoke shop owners with sale or possession of marijuana, a $150 penalty, Stamford Assistant Police Chief Richard Conklin said. But that has proven ineffectual, Conklin said.
“These shops are making a tremendous amount of money. So they take the $150 ticket and continue going about their business,” Conklin said. “That’s why we called in the attorney general. Because of state licensing requirements, he can go in these shops and inspect without a search warrant. It’s a much better strategy.”
For each Stamford raid, the value of the confiscated items totaled $30,000 to $40,000, Conklin said.
“That’s money these shop owners aren’t getting back,” Conklin said.
Connecticut’s attorney general has civil authority, Tong said.
“The office has broad consumer protection powers in Connecticut,” Tong said. “We can require these retailers to pay fines and penalties. We can compel them to put signs in their shops saying that they have been selling illegal products and are no longer doing so, as a way to make customers aware.”
Customers don’t know that some products in smoke shops may be illegal, he said. But the people selling the products know.
“There is some ambiguity as to consumers, but there is no ambiguity as to retailers,” Tong said.
Proof came with what investigators found in the Stamford smoke shops, he said.
In one, they discovered a fake electrical panel with a hidden drawer containing flower marijuana, other illicit drugs, wads of cash, and a ledger, according to Tong’s office. At another shop, investigators found illegal THC products stashed above ceiling tiles.
“If they thought it was legal, they wouldn’t be hiding things in the ceiling,” Tong said. “It shows the length to which people are going to be able to sell these products.”
It’s lucrative, Conklin said. Many items sell for $35 and $45 apiece. Some smoke shops are owned by large companies, he said.
Two of the Stamford shops that were raided are owned by the same person, Tong said.
Adding to the danger, Tong said, the retailers are targeting products to middle- and high-school children. Packaging mimics snacks and candies popular in that age group, including Doritos, Cheetos, Fritos, Oreos and Skittles, he said.
“A kid can come across one of these products in the home, mistake it for Doritos, and ingest a whole bag along with a dangerous amount of THC,” Tong said. “One in five children in the U.S. who ingests these edibles ends up in a hospital.”
The Connecticut Poison Control Center reported 189 cases of ingestion in children under age 19 between 2000 and 2022, according to Tong’s office. Most ended up in a hospital emergency room, and about a third were admitted.
The crackdown on smoke shops was driven by complaints from parents and educators, Conklin said. Officers who helped search the smoke shops found young people “lined up outside … the number of kids at the door was unbelievable,” he said.
Stamford Mayor Caroline Simmons said the city “has zero tolerance for the sale of illegal and unregulated cannabis products, especially if they are targeted toward our youth.”
Stamford police are working with the Board of Education; the Domus Foundation, which helps kids who face adversity; and Liberation Programs, an addiction treatment center, Assistant Police Chief Silas Redd said.
“It’s about education, education, education,” Redd said. “It’s helping kids make better choices.”
In February, Tong’s office sued Raheem Mini Mart and AZ Smoke Shop & Wireless, both in Manchester; Smoker’s Paradise and 7 Puff, both in East Hartford; and Anthony’s Service Station in Plainville. The cases are ongoing, Tong said.
The five pending lawsuits plus the three in Stamford are “just the tip of the iceberg,” Tong said. His office sent letters to every licensed smoke shop in Connecticut explaining the law governing sale of unregulated cannabis products, Tong said.
“We’re sending a message to these retailers,” he said. “They better stop selling these illegal products or we’ll shut them down.”