Medical Marijuana: How Two Connecticut Towns Are Preparing for Licenses

Dec 27, 2013

The space in the Remington Rand Building in Middletown, where Greenbelt Management hopes to develop a medical marijuana production facility.
Credit Greenbelt Management

In January, the state's Department of Consumer Protection will begin awarding the first ever licenses to medical marijuana producers and dispensers in Connecticut. While the licenses are awarded by the state, it's been left up to individual towns to decide if they want to host one of these facilities. Two communities in Connecticut have taken very different approaches to this new industry.

There are so many potential pitfalls for a municipality hosting a facility, West Hartford Town Manager Ron Van Winkle said it's difficult to know where to start.

Jason Nickerson is at the Remington Rand building in Middletown, an old industrial facility that's found new life in recent years as a home for small businesses. Nickerson is part of a fourth-generation family general contracting business that specializes in water and waste water treatment plants. He's been looking for opportunities to diversify his company. When the law on medical marijuana was passed, he and his brother Matthew saw the opportunity, and created Greenbelt Management to develop a marijuana production facility.

"When we found this building," Nickerson said, "and we saw that on paper, it was kind of checking off all our boxes, we approached the city just to get a feel for how they would respond. I won't try to say they were doing backflips about it, when we initially approached them, but I think they were amenable or receptive to letting us talk it out with them. I think they acknowledged that at this point, this is a legal business in the state, and they needed, therefore, to consider it."

Because the state requires that companies applying for licenses are able to show an immediate capability to start growing, permission and cooperation from the town were particularly crucial. Nickerson said the primary concern was security of the facility.

"We drafted an eight-page overview of our security plan," Nickerson said, "which I think went a long way in helping them understand that this is not a mom and pop greenhouse operation. This is more like a pharmaceutical lab. We went before the council here in Middletown and managed to convince them as well, and have now very public and very visible zoning approval, which I think is going to be an asset to our license application."

Middletown Mayor Dan Drew confirmed that the attitude among town officials was largely positive. "We had a lot of practical discussions, we had a lot of practical planning," he said. "But I have to say, I was actually a little surprised myself that we didn't hear any sort of moral debate about the philosophical efficacy of doing something like this."

Drew said the town has come to see the medical marijuana industry as a new route to generating jobs and economic development. He said, "I think that our society is moving in a direction where we're going to see more growth in this area, and for Middletown to be in the forefront of that, and recognize that early on I think it important, because we'll be ahead of the curve."

But not everyone in Connecticut feels that way. In West Hartford, I struggled to find anyone who would welcome the marijuana industry to town. In October, after wrestling with the question of whether potentially to host a marijuana dispensary, the town had a public hearing. Town manager Ron Van Winkle said, "It was an excellent hearing, it was a moving hearing. In the end, I think the council realized, yes, we need to pause and think."

Van Winkle said there are so many potential pitfalls for a municipality hosting a facility, it's difficult to know where to start. "It's still a felony under the federal laws," he said, "and how we would operate relative to those, how our police will operate. And then: do we need local zoning regulations? Should we regulate the size of the sign; should we regulate the location, the distance from certain other uses? We didn't have an answer."

West Hartford's answer, instead, was to impose a nine-month moratorium on any medical marijuana development in the town. During that period, the town will work on the issue, and develop a set of regulations.

Van Winkle said that as he's seen California's medical marijuana industry develop, he feels West Hartford's approach is vindicated. "In communities that have many, many dispensaries," he said, "those communities that adopted regulations early for those dispensaries were able to implement this change in the law much better that those that just said, go ahead, do whatever you want."

It does mean, though, that West Hartford will miss out on this first wave of licenses, due to be awarded to dispensaries and production facilities within weeks. Van Winkle said he's comfortable it won't be their last chance. "Presumably, this industry will grow," he said. "It's grown in other states. I would assume that somewhere in the future, there will be more of these dispensaries and production facilities, and West Hartford may be a location."

West Hartford is not alone. Ansonia, Ridgefield, Shelton, and Trumbull, among others, have all decided to step back and let others, like Milford and Middletown, take the lead.