CT: Grassroots Effort In Support Of Recreational Marijuana

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On his way back from showing his wares to a medical marijuana dispensary in Bethel, Will Bosch of Norwalk stopped at Cafe Dolce and ordered a cup of espresso.

Bosch is a self-described snob about both his weed and his coffee, and his company, Topstone Projects, makes countertop vapes for the same type of people who would want a high-end cappuccino machine for their home — those willing to shell out for the best possible experience who are not concerned about portability. The contraption made of stainless steel and leather, with a glass chamber for cannabis concentrate and a bocote wood mouthpiece, resembles a one-note flute from the future.

It’s certainly a conversation starter.

“Is that pot?” asked Mari Gyorgyey, who happened to be sitting at a nearby table.

“It’s cannabis,” Bosch responded, using the scientific term. He was first prescribed medical marijuana in 2015, during a series of health troubles that ended his career as a professional cyclist.

She peered at the device and mused about the future of weed in the state.

“I never thought I’d see this in Connecticut,” she said.

Conversations about marijuana are cropping up everywhere in Norwalk, from people with widely differing perspectives.

After it became possible for dispensaries to open in Norwalk, Planning and Zoning has received many inquiries from potential medical marijuana facilities. So far, those inquiries have yet to translate into any applications.

However, the area’s marijuana landscape will likely change within months. The state Department of Consumer Protection is currently accepting applications for the next batch of medical marijuana facilities, and individuals from both Stamford and Westport have confirmed their interest in applying.
And bills that could legalize recreational marijuana are currently wending their way through the state legislature, with one receiving a public hearing on Thursday and another public hearing this coming Monday.

A chance to heal

This week, advocates both for and against legalizing recreational marijuana have been organizing to make their opinions heard.

Kebra Smith-Bolden put on a chartreuse sweater, pinned an artificial weed leaf above her heart and drove down to the state Capitol Thursday morning.

Smith-Bolden, a registered nurse, was inspired by her grandmother’s experience with medical marijuana to enroll in the Northeastern Institute of Cannabis to learn more — two of her teachers later became part of the Massachusetts Cannabis Advisory Board and Cannabis Control Commission when the drug was legalized in that state. She now runs her own center for medical marijuana evaluations and certifications in New Haven called CannaHealth, where she said she sees the prevalence of PTSD in the minority community — people struggling with the deaths of friends and family or born to drug-addicted parents.

At the hearing, she urged public officials to consider how to make new laws help those communities that have struggled with drugs and drug regulation. “I know first-hand the effect the war on drugs has had on communities of color — on my communities,” she said. “I know the names and faces of young people that have been lost either to addiction, violence or the effects of poverty — i.e. the lack of access to quality care. Therefore, as a restorative justice measure, I believe it’s critical that whatever adult-use program is enacted in this state by a fair and equitable one” — meaning that regulations are structured to allow people from a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds to open businesses.

After promising state Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, a list of the cities most impacted by the war on drugs, Smith-Bolden left Hartford feeling hopeful. “The way they’re talking about cannabis this time, they’re asking more questions and seem to be more willing to problem-solve,” she said. “This might be our year.”

Thinking of the children

However, others are putting time into organizing against the bills.

Connecticut SAM (Smart Approaches to Marijuana) also urged people to attend the public hearing — but to speak against legalizing marijuana. Spokesperson Bo Huhn steered the conversation away from adult use of cannabis to the trickle-down effect it will have on children who will have greater access to a drug with lessened stigma.

“Our focus really is on kids. If you step back 10 paces and look at it, we have just a horrendous problem of drug use in our society,” he said. “And it’s not just people dying of overdoses with opiates, but the number of people who start down quite an innocent path of partying as teenagers. And most kids do just fine — they party with alcohol and come out the other end no problem. But there’s a certain percentage that do get addicted. And a certain percentage of those kids get involved in even more destructive drugs and get demolished.”

Huhn is passionate about the issue because he has seen the impact that drugs can have on children and families. When his daughter was a high school sophomore, she became addicted to crack cocaine and had to fight her way clean. The experience is part of what motivates him to be a vocal advocate against marijuana — he points to Yale professor Deepak Dsouza’s research on the negative risks of repeated exposure to the drug, especially for adolescents.

Huhn believes that many have accepted that a small percentage of people will live haunted by encounters with addiction. “But those of us who have become activists about this believe that’s something we don’t have to do,” he said. “We can change the culture.”

A tool against opioids?

On Wednesday evening, Sam Tracy, director of the Connecticut Coalition to Regulate Marijuana, spoke to Democracy for Connecticut in Norwalk’s Silver Star Diner. He listed reasons for legalizing marijuana — safer supply chain, higher tax revenue, the ability to use it for more medical conditions — to an audience already largely in support of what he was selling.

But one person who had entered the room on the fence about legalization said he changed his stance after hearing that medical marijuana cannot be prescribed for chronic pain in Connecticut.

“I did not realize that chronic pain was not on the list of medical conditions,” David Stevenson of Danbury said. “That, to me, that’s the most important point about this. If that’s a trade-off of legalizing it, I’m all in favor.”

Whether or not marijuana could be a tool in Connecticut’s fight against opioids by providing doctors an alternative, less addictive prescription for chronic pain has drawn some debate.

Ginger Katz, whose son died of an opioid overdose, does not believe medical marijuana is an effective solution.

“Be careful. Beware. Beware of what they’re telling you,” she said. Since her son’s death, she has started a nonprofit, The Courage to Speak Foundation, which provides drug prevention trainings, and she is wary of anything that would make children believe that marijuana is healthy. “Do your research. It hasn’t been proven yet.”

But for Huhn, it was a difficult question. “Now if someone’s in a really awful situation with chronic pain who is facing a lifetime on opiates, I’d think no harm done taking marijuana instead of opiates,” he said. “But if it’s a minor pain, I’d be wary of taking marijuana — I don’t know … Pain is such an easy thing to go into a doctor for. I think there’s probably abuse of it in states that have it as a condition where it’s authorized.”

Expanded access to medical marijuana

Whether or not recreational marijuana is approved, medical dispensaries are still likely to expand, especially in Fairfield County.

Multiple businesses in Westport and Stamford have indicated their interest in applying for dispensary licenses by the April 9 deadline. There are currently nine dispensaries in the state, and Department of Consumer Protection spokesperson Lora Rae Anderson confirmed that between three and 10 licenses will be awarded to new dispensaries this year — meaning that the number could more than double in a number of months.

And whatever action the state takes on either recreational or medical marijuana, there are some things outside its control. Recreational marijuana is expected to be available in Massachusetts starting July 1, and it’s only to be expected that some will seep across the border, especially since the drug has been decriminalized.

At Cafe Dolce, Gyorgey told Bosch that she believed that the tide had turned in favor of weed. She had just returned from a trip to Portland, Oregon, where recreational marijuana has been legal since 2015. For her, it was only a matter of time — one anticipated enthusiastically by some, apprehensively by others.

“It’s a generational thing,” she said simply, nodding at Bosch.