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State seeks to take leading position in expanding marijuana market

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Almost unthinkable a decade ago, the legal marijuana market in the United States is booming — and Connecticut hopes to take advantage of the trend.

According to a report by New Frontier and ArcView Market Research, the legal marijuana market will stand at roughly $7.1 billion by year’s end, a nearly 25 percent increase from 2015’s $5.7 billion. By 2020, the report predicts the market will be worth nearly $23 billion.

The lion’s share of those numbers has been from the sale of medical marijuana, which in 2014 comprised 92 percent of the overall market. However, with decriminalization and legalization efforts proceeding at the state level, ArcView expects medical marijuana buy 2020 to account for 47 percent of the total market, compared with recreational marijuana’s 53 percent market share. 

To date, eight states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana, while Connecticut and 12 other states have decriminalized the drug so that while still illegal for recreational use, enforcement and penalties are not as severe as in other states. And 29 states have legalized medical marijuana, including Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York.

In the Nutmeg State, 14,765 patients are registered in the medical marijuana program, including 2,813 Fairfield County residents, according to state Consumer Protection Commissioner Jonathan Harris, whose department oversees the program. “That number was about 1,700 two years ago” when the program started, he said. “We’re increasing by about 100 patients a week.” 

Harris said the number of participating doctors has increased from about 80 at the program’s start in 2014 to 569 today.

The state recently increased the number of approved medical marijuana dispensaries from six to eight, with a ninth set to open in Milford, that community’s second facility, in the new year.

“The stigma is decreasing tremendously,” Harris said of longstanding concerns about reducing or eliminating penalties for using cannabis. As evidence, he pointed to the Oct. 1 enactment of legislation giving access to non-smokable medical marijuana to children suffering from terminal illness, epilepsy, cystic fibrosis and other ailments. Medical marijuana is allowed in Connecticuit as a treatment for 22 specific medical conditions. 

State Sen. Toni Boucher, a Republican who represents the Westport/Wilton area, was among a small group of legislators who voted against the legislation. “Marijuana is an illegal and dangerous Schedule I controlled substance,” she told the Business Journal. “It has been shown to inhibit brain development in children and adolescents and has been linked to a host of health issues in adults, including an increased susceptibility to mental illnesses such as schizophrenia. Its use as medicine has not been approved by the FDA, and it should not be administered to adults or children.”

The Department of Consumer Protection on Oct. 1 began accepting applications for research projects that could help strengthen and expand its medical marijuana program. Eligible applicants for the project – which Harris said seeks to improve how to determine the safety and effectiveness of medical marijuana in treating diseases — include hospitals, other health care facilities, higher education institutions, and licensed medical marijuana producers and dispensaries.

“The state’s medical marijuana program is not only providing patients suffering from serious diseases, and their doctors, an alternative treatment option; it’s creating good jobs in the state,” Harris said in announcing the project. “With this new research program, Connecticut could become the focal point for medical cannabis research and add to the strong biotech base already here.”

Harris said the medical marijuana program already employs about 250 people statewide and approved research projects will require more hiring.

“This kind of research is sorely needed not just in Connecticut, but around the country and around the world as well,” he told the Business Journal. “This is designed to make Connecticut the place with a framework to do this kind of research and to be the source of really good job-building for the future.”

FAIRFIELD’S SOLE DISPENSARY 

In Bethel, Angela D’Amico is founding owner of Compassionate Care Center of Connecticut, Fairfield County’s only medical marijuana dispensary.

“This can be a heartbreaking business,” she said. “We see so many patients who have been or are still addicted to opiates — every 19 minutes, someone dies of an opiate overdose in this country. And to see people with stage four cancer or severe spinal cord injuries struggle to even get through the door …”

Sam Raslan, a medical marijuana patient, discussed products at the Bethel dispensary with Angela D’Amico, founding owner of Compassionate Care Center of Connecticut, and pharmacist Jorge Hernandez.

“The best part is when you see the product” — which comes both in plant and oil form — “make a real difference. We have a 90-year-old patient with orthopedic issues who’s been seeing doctors for 25 years. But after she’d come here a few times, she sent a letter saying, ‘You are an angel sent by God.’”

Although D’Amico also runs A.D. Lines, a craft supply and art restoration company in Monroe, she said she spends most of her time in Bethel. Vacations have been sacrificed to the demands of a startup business. “And it’s been hard,” she said. “I tried to find a place in Newtown, in Monroe, Trumbull, Fairfield … zoning was always an issue.” 

D’Amico found that Stratford had imposed a 12-month moratorium on medical marijuana dispensaries and Bridgeport bowed to pressure from residents who feared the dispensary’s existence would send a pro-drug use message.

Some nearby residents objected to her location at 4 Garella Road in a commercial area in Bethel. “There are still a lot of misconceptions and misinformation out there about just what it is we’re doing,” she said.

“I was dealing with a ridiculous amount of morphine and equipment,” said patient Sam Raslan, who visits the Bethel dispensary for treatment of a spinal disesae. “But within three or four months of coming here, I got my soul back. She’s family,” he said of D’Amico. “We all call her Auntie Angela.”

The need for a county-based dispensary was obvious, D’Amico said. “We were getting calls from patients practically the minute we put the phones in. When we started (in 2014), we were seeing 1,100 to 1,200 visits a month. Now it’s about 4,500 a month.”

Still, “It’s not about numbers. Now it’s Tina, Bill and Bobby — everybody has a name and a voice behind the name. These are people suffering from MS, Parkinson’s, cancer, who have no other choice when it comes to treatment. They can come here for palliative care or they can keep on vomiting from all the chemotherapy and pain from their cancer. What would you do?”

GREEN PROFITS 

One Fairfield County company is looking to reap profits from the marijuana industry well beyond Connecticut. 

Based in Norwalk, Seventh Point LLC, a startup private equity firm, seeks to command a majority share of legal cannabis assets in Los Angeles – including cultivation centers, dispensaries, brands and technologies – through acquisitions, joint ventures and strategic financing.

Seventh Point owner and CEO Steven Gormley — who previously oversaw business development for OSL Holdings Inc., a technology firm whose enterprises include medical marijuana production — said he is “well on the way” to raising the $75 million he has targeted to begin investing in marijuana-related assets in California.

“From my perspective, it’s self-evident” why Seventh Point is targeting that market, Gormley said. “This is a multibillion-dollar industry. Most Americans have tried it (marijuana) at some point or another.”

With the legalization movement gaining steam, “We’re looking not just at medical marijuana but at marijuana in general. The key, as with any industry, is to get in early,” Gormley said.

“I’d love to be working in my backyard,” he said, “but right now the market is driving us to California.”

There are signs that legalized recreational marijuana could come to Connecticut sooner than many had expected. 

A group of Connecticut state representatives earlier this year introduced legislation that would legalize and regulate the sale and use of marijuana for adults. Though it did not pass, its lead sponsor, Rep. Juan Candelaria (D-New Haven), has indicated that he will reintroduce the proposal when the legislature reconvenes in 2017.

In the wake of Massachusetts voters in November approving the use of recreational marijuana by a 54-46 percent margin, Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy, who opposed the Candelaria bill, has indicated he may support a similar measure here as well.

“We might have to reexamine our legal position, our position of enforcement, based on what some surrounding states are doing,” Malloy told the New Haven Independent last month.

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