The legalization of recreational marijuana has launched a certain entrepreneurship in Connecticut.
Smoke shops are popping up everywhere.
A lack of knowledge among customers about who is licensed to sell marijuana and which products are legal – and a lack of enforcement statewide – have created a haze of confusion, and some smoke shops are capitalizing on it.
Many are selling more than tobacco products; more than the rolling papers, pipes, bongs and other paraphernalia used to smoke marijuana; and more than the vaping cartridges used to inhale the atomized oils of marijuana plants.
They are unlawfully selling marijuana, and products that contain illegal amounts of THC, the substance in marijuana that produces the high. Any product with more than .3 percent THC must be sold through a licensed dispensary.
State Attorney General William Tong has begun taking legal action against Connecticut smoke shops. His office is working with local police to confiscate illicit products, and he is filing lawsuits against eight smoke shops – three in Stamford, two in Manchester, two in East Hartford, and one in Plainville.
It’s the “tip of the iceberg,” Tong said last week during a press conference with Stamford police after they seized about $120,000 worth of illegal products from three smoke shops.
Since those raids, products have been confiscated from a fourth Stamford shop, Assistant Police Chief Richard Conklin said Thursday.
“This practice of illegally selling marijuana, and selling these illegal products, is not a mistake by a clerk that doesn’t know what’s legal and what’s not,” Conklin said. “It’s a strategy to maximize profit. Some of the owners in Stamford own other stores in Connecticut. They are springing up unbelievably fast. It’s a golden goose right now.”
Figuring out the number of smoke shops in the city is difficult because they are proliferating, plus gas station convenience stores and other variety stores have started selling marijuana products, too, Conklin said.
So Stamford is employing another tool.
State backs off its cap
Land Use Bureau Chief Ralph Blessing said Thursday he is working on zoning changes that would affect smoke shops and state-licensed marijuana retailers. Stamford now has two licensed dispensaries that sell medical and recreational marijuana, and an application for a third one is pending.
A smoke shop, under city zoning regulations, must devote at least 50 percent of the retail space to the sale of tobacco and related products. But the regulations were written before marijuana sales were legal.
It’s time to rewrite them, Blessing said.
The zoning changes he is proposing would require that smoke shops and licensed marijuana retailers be at least 1,000 feet from a public school, and at least 2,000 feet from each other. The changes also would impose certain limitations on signs.
The Stamford Planning Board is supposed to consider the changes at its April 25 meeting, Blessing said, but he is still waiting for an opinion from the law department about his proposed sign limits.
More significantly, the state, which regulates and licenses marijuana dispensaries, has changed its rules governing the maximum number allowed per town, Blessing said.
“The state used to have a cap on the number of dispensaries based on the population of a municipality,” he said. “It is my understanding that that cap is now gone.”
A useful safeguard
There should be a cap, city Rep. Cara Gilbride told the Board of Representatives’ Land Use Committee in February.
Gilbride reported complaints from her constituents about World’s Exotic Smoke Shop at 2204 Summer St. The concern was that advertisements, including flashing lights and big colorful signs for store products, snacks, soft drinks, and other items, could lure kids into the shop in a mixed residential neighborhood, Gilbride said.
And there’s another smoke shop at 2538 Summer St., a block away, Gilbride said.
World’s Exotic Smoke Shop was among those raided by Stamford police. Conklin said police confiscated 1,796 illegal THC products and 18 containers of marijuana, each containing about 4.5 grams.
Blessing told Gilbride during the February meeting that a zoning officer inspected World’s Exotic Smoke Shop and found one violation for a flashing sign. Whether that can be addressed under his zoning changes remains to be seen.
Blessing said the number of marijuana dispensaries and smoke shops is already limited because they are allowed only in certain zoning districts, and that can be further limited if his distance requirements are implemented. But Stamford should have its own cap, Blessing said, and he is drafting one he hopes to have ready in a few weeks.
“Capping the number for dispensaries is, I think, a useful additional safeguard,” he said.
It takes a minute
Another safeguard is good, Conklin said.
“I think it would help,” the assistant police chief said. “This has expanded so quickly that it takes a minute for legislation and policy to catch up.”
When marijuana was legalized, smoke shop owners “saw an opportunity and ran with it,” Conklin said. “They have an understanding that law enforcement is short-handed and pulled in many directions, and they knew there was a possibility of making large sums of money.”
A lot of smoke shop marketing is directed at young people, the assistant chief said. Nobody knows what’s in the unregulated products kids are buying, and some are known to contain metals, chemical solvents and dangerous levels of THC, Conklin said.
“We get a tremendous number of complaints from concerned parents and educators telling us this is a big problem,” Conklin said. “They’re afraid it could be a start to a lifelong addiction. The vape pipes, all the flavors, really intrigues young people. When we raided the three smoke shops, my crews reported back that they saw kids at these places waiting to get in.”
The advantage of working with Tong’s office is that the attorney general has the authority to search the shops without an investigation or search warrant, Conklin said.
“We were issuing summons for $150 for sale of vape products to a minor. It did not modify the behavior of the store owners,” Conklin said. “Working with the state, we took about $40,000 worth of illegal products from each store, and the attorney general is hitting them with a civil suit and can possibly shut them down. That’s a much better behavior modifier.”
The confiscations will continue statewide, Tong has said.