It’s rare to watch the birth of an entire industry from the ground up, but Westport may bear witness to just that in the upcoming year with the potential arrival of two medical marijuana dispensaries.
Thus far, three different parties have confirmed interest in opening a medical marijuana dispensary shop in town, but they’ll need to jump through a series of regulatory hurdles and duke it out for one of two open spots.
State, local regulation
The state Department of Consumer Protection became responsible for administering the state’s medical marijuana program in 2012, following approval by the state Legislature for the program.
Since 2012, the state has opened applications for medical marijuana dispensary licenses three times — in 2013, 2015 and 2018, and to date has awarded nine dispensary licenses.
The most recent request for applications opened this month and anticipates awarding between three and ten dispensary facility licenses for locations throughout the state after the application period closes in early April.
Westport’s Planning and Zoning Commission saw merit in providing medical marijuana dispensaries in town for those who otherwise would have to travel far for the service, and in June, adopted a zoning regulation for medical marijuana dispensaries, said Mary Young, the Planning and Zoning Department director.
The unanimously passed zoning amendment permits two dispensaries to operate in nonresidential districts and at least 1,000 feet from any school, place of worship, public park, public building or public recreation area. Around 60 town properties fit the bill.
In order to set up shop, applicants must first garner local approval and then a state dispensary license. Three parties have said they are up for the challenge.
Angela D’Amico, owner of the Bethel-based medical marijuana dispensary, Compassionate Care of Connecticut, hopes to open a dispensary in Westport and said she’s pursuing a state license and looking for a location in town that fits her needs and the town zoning requirements.
Phil Hein opened Shoreline Integrative Pharmacy a year ago and hopes to get a license to sell medical marijuana at his job. Located next to Shake Shack and across from Stop and Shop, Hein’s shop doesn’t fit the town’s zoning requirements for dispensaries because it’s located within 1,000 feet of a town sewer pump, which is presently considered a public building.
Zoning planned to discuss on Thursday — after press deadline — whether to allow sewer pump stations not to function as public buildings, in which case Hein’s property would be eligible for a license under town regulations.
“To be a local Westport business owner to do it would be phenomenal,” Hein, a Weston resident, said.
Nick Tamorrino, founder and manager of Bluepoint Wellness, a medical marijuana dispensary in Branford, also wants to open a dispensary in Westport. “Currently there’s no dispensaries in Fairfield County other than Bethel, which is closer to Danbury,” Tamorrino said.
A Fairfield resident, Tamorrino said he’d love to operate a dispensary near his hometown to more easily service his many patients who travel to Branford from Fairfield, Westport, Stamford and Norwalk to get medical marijuana.
A Westport shop location is perfect, Tamorrino said, because unlike neighboring Fairfield, New Canaan and Darien, Westport has created zoning regulations for medical marijuana dispensaries and thus, Tamorrino said, is OK with the use of medical marijuana.
Norwalk and Stamford have also passed restrictive zoning regulations for medical marijuana dispensaries, but so far no medical marijuana shops have opened in those cities.
Nothing’s definite, Tamorrino, a clinical pharmacist, said, but said if he finds the right operator, landlord and location that works for the town, he’ll try and get a license and open shop.
Despite the three people interested in opening a dispensary in town, zoning regulations only permit two dispensaries to operate in town. Young said the two-dispensary limit was imposed to limit any unintended consequences of having a dispensary, but in the future the town may allow more than two if all goes well.
Federal pushback, medicinal need
The three potential applicants for medical marijuana dispensary licenses in town still appear gung-ho, despite Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ recently announced guidance that gives federal prosecutors more power to enforce federal laws against marijuana in states where the drug is legal.
“I think Connecticut would be the last state for the feds to go after because we are the most regulated,” D’Amico said, referring to the fact Connecticut was the first state to say only licensed pharmacists can obtain a dispensary license and dispense the drug.
The rise of recreational marijuana use at the state level is causing a backlash from the federal level, Tamorrino said, and added Connecticut should be relatively immune from federal focus because it permits only medical, not recreational, marijuana use.
“Medical marijuana is not the same as recreational marijuana,” Tamorrino said.
Following Sessions’ new marijuana guidelines, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy issued a critical statement saying the attorney general’s move was a wasteful diversion of vital federal resources.
“Especially during the midst of a national opioid crisis, medical marijuana provides an important alternative to opioids, as is counted on for relief by 22,000 Connecticut residents,” Malloy said.
At the town level, First Selectman Jim Marpe said his administration will operate as planned when it comes to medical marijuana dispensaries, despite Sessions guidelines. “It remains uncertain as to what the federal government really intends to do, so for the time being we need to focus on enforcing the state regulations to the letter of the law and the P&Z commission clearly delineated regulations regarding where dispensaries are appropriate,” Marpe said.
At the end of the day the three parties looking to open a dispensary in Westport said they are committed to bringing medical marijuana to town, despite the potential regulatory roadblocks.
In Connecticut, adults need to have a grave health issue, including post-traumatic stress disorder, cancer, glaucoma and Parkinson’s disease, in order to qualify for a medical marijuana certificate. Children can garner a certificate if they have a select debilitating medical condition, such as cerebral palsy or cystic fibrosis.
“Medical marijuana is remarkably beneficial, and people who don’t know it or don’t agree have never interacted with people who use it,” Hein said, adding the drug really improves the life of those suffering from severe illnesses and serves as an alternative to opiates, which he said have created a disaster in the state.
Unlike the image of a recreational marijuana shop, Tamorrino said his Branford facility operates in a “very professional, medical setting.”
D’Amico has nearly become an evangelist for medical marijuana and travels frequently to speak about the drug’s benefits. “I wish I could get in front of Jeff Sessions with a group of patients that we got off opioids and are managing cancer (with medical marijuana),” D’Amico said.