Mar 27, 2013
12:13 PMConnecticut Today
Connecticut Medical Marijuana Law Calls for Strict Requirements for Growers, Users
Lori Labreck is clearly proud of her crop. Sounding like an organic farmer in a “Buy Locally Grown” T-shirt, she talks glowingly of the high quality of her plants and worries about mold and pest issues that could potentially kill them. Yet her crop is not likely to appear for sale at a farmer’s market anytime soon.
Labreck’s crop is marijuana and as a “caregiver” in Maine, she can legally grow marijuana and provide it to patients who have been prescribed the drug by their doctors. In October, Connecticut became the 17th state in the U.S. to permit some form of medical marijuana, recently joined by Washington, D.C., although it is still prohibited under federal law. So legal cannabis plants will soon be taking root in Connecticut, possibly by the end of the year. Under a strictly regulated program, doctors will be able to prescribe state-grown medical marijuana to alleviate debilitating symptons of and chronic pain from certain ailments.
Proponents of medical marijuana say its legalization in the Land of Steady Habits will provide an effective treatment option for patients, potentially create a budding (no pun intended) multimillion-dollar industry and possibly serve as a model for the regulation of medical marijuana in other states. In some states, such as California, regulations regarding medical marijuana are relatively lax and critics charge that many are able to obtain marijuana prescriptions for “ailments” as flimsy as “being out-of-weed-itis.” Connecticut has taken a decidedly stricter approach.
“We modeled a lot of what we do on how we regulate the pharmaceutical industry,” says William M. Rubenstein, commissioner of the Department of Consumer Protection (DCP), which will oversee the growth and distribution of medical marijuana in Connecticut. “Our program will limit the access to those truly sick patients who can get a benefit from use. Because we’re using a pharmaceutical model, the problems of access and abuse won’t be any different for marijuana than for any other pharmaceutical drug.”
On June 1, the Palliative Use of Marijuana Act, House Bill 5389, was signed into law by Gov. Dannel Malloy. Since it went into effect Oct. 1, patients can register for the possession of up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana, but so far, a system that allows for its legal growth and distribution has not yet been implemented. In January, the DCP drafted an almost 80-page proposal that will be submitted by July 1 to the General Assembly for approval.
Rubenstein says the plan is to make marijuana available to patients as soon as possible. “The end of this year would be optimistic, but doable,” he suggests, but “it’s more likely the system will be up and running by the beginning of 2014.”
While drafting the proposal, officials visited a marijuana-dispensary facility in Maine, which made medical marijuana legal in 2009, and looked at other states that have adopted medical marijuana statutes. “You learn from good examples and from bad examples,” Rubenstein says. “We took pieces from other states that we thought worked, but by and large what you see are regulations that follow a pharmaceutical-regulation path.”
The guidelines lay out 11 debilitating conditions that qualify patients for medical marijuana, including AIDS, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, cancer and spinal injuries. Prescriptions will be required for all purchases, and patients will be limited to a one-month supply. Prior to prescribing cannabis, physicians have to determine that the benefits outweigh potential health risks.
Businesses wishing to grow marijuana in the state and operate dispensaries will need to make substantial investments. Both growers and dispensers will be required to implement substantial security measures including perimeter alarms, motion detectors, alarm systems and video monitoring. The policy also proposes that growers put $2 million in escrow and pay a $25,000 application fee and a $75,000 licensing fee. “We want producers who are serious about the business they’re in,” Rubenstein says. “The design is to create an uninterrupted source of supply for patients.”
Medical marijuana will be distributed by licensed pharmacists who have been approved to open dispensaries. Workers at these dispensaries will not be able to wear clothes with pockets. Marijuana will come in various forms, including pills, oils and baked goods, as well as dried plants for smoking. Licensed caregivers will be able to pick up marijuana for patients, but unlike in Maine and some other states, these caregivers will not be able to grow the drug for their patients.
Rubenstein says there has been significant interest in growing and dispensing medical marijuana from businesses and individuals. One of these businesses is Gaia Plant Based Medicine, an affiliate of Gaia Colorado, which operates three dispensaries and one growth facility in Colorado. Erik Williams, of Coventry, is the company’s chief operating officer for Connecticut. He says the company plans to seek approval to operate a growing facility and several dispensaries here.
“The company is bringing in a lot of experience from operating in Colorado,” he says. “We want to transfer this into Connecticut. We’ve got an absolutely impeccable strain bank. We know how to make sure everything is working well with the city and with the state, and we provide safe access to quality reliable medicine for patients.”
Williams also is executive director of the Connecticut branch of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). He says each growing facility will employ about 100 people, and suggests that the new industry can have “a significant impact on our local economy.”
“These are good-paying jobs. Growing medical marijuana of the highest quality is not easy; it requires skilled labor,” he says, adding that medical marijuana production in Connecticut will be regulated and responsible. “This is not California. Businesses are going to have to be and will be absolutely pillars of the community.”
In Colorado, medical marijuana has generated millions of dollars for the state. In Denver alone, sales resulted in more than $5 million in tax revenues.
Mason Tvert, communications director of the Marijuana Policy Project—a national lobbying and advocacy group based in Colorado—says Connecticut is part of the trend toward increasing regulation of medical marijuana. “The laws that have passed in the last few years have included more specific state regulation,” says Tvert, adding that stricter oversights help keep federal authorities at bay. “The states where the federal government has been the most active in terms of interfering with medical-marijuana laws are those without state regulation. The federal government has carried out raids in California, Montana and Nevada, but it has been largely respectful of the system here because Colorado has a very stringent policy that’s tightly regulated and controlled.”
Rubenstein says that while although the Connecticut statute can’t override federal law, he doesn’t believe there will be much of a clash with federal authorities. “What we’ve heard from the Department of Justice is that they don’t have any interest in prosecuting patients and physicians that are certifying and using marijuana for medical use, and that their resources are not likely to be directed at producers and dispensers operating under a well-designed and well-regulated state system,” he says. “What they’re concerned mostly with is facilities that are outside tight state regulation or operating in ways that permit theft and diversion.”
In January, potential marijuana businesses here formed the Connecticut Medical Cannabis Business Alliance to support the new industry here and educate patients, doctors and the general public about the drug’s benefits. The organization’s executive director is Eileen Konieczny, an oncology nurse from Stamford who advocated for the law.
Konieczny says although medical marijuana will be strictly monitored in Connecticut, the state’s regulation system is actually more user-friendly than in some states where regulations are more lax. “It is extremely patient-oriented,” she says. “Putting a pharmacist in the dispensary adds another layer of legitimacy for the physician because now they know that they have another check and balance. This is scary for physicians because it’s something that they haven’t done before.”
Labreck, the Maine caregiver, says she and other growers of medical marijuana make sure to filter out patients who are looking to get marijuana for recreational use. “We’re here to provide safe, quality medical marijuana to a patient in need,” she says. “Not to someone who’s looking just to get high—that’s not what this is about. This is medicine and it should be treated as such.”