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Towns in North-central Connecticut are making decisions about cannabis retailers

Ryan Caron King
Connecticut Public Radio

Enfield resident Elizabeth Davis was looking forward to the legal sale of recreational marijuana in her town.

She is out of luck.

Enfield recently prohibited the sale of the newly legalized drug within its borders — but that isn’t the case for some other towns in north-central Connecticut.

Possession and use of cannabis for people age 21 and over has been legal in the state since July 1. However, as part of the law, each municipality has the ability to either allow cannabis retailers or prohibit sales through an ordinance. The cultivation and retail selling of cannabis products in the state is not expected to happen until late 2022.

In Massachusetts — where the drug was legalized in 2016 — establishments are often clean environments with electronic message boards and kiosks to browse through the various products, depending on customer needs, strength, or how it is consumed as in edibles, oils, plants, and more.

“The list of positives of having it sold in town are endless,” said Davis, a former Enfield councilwoman who served in the Connecticut Army National Guard Active Reserve who laments that her town isn’t embracing the selling of cannabis. “Think of the revenue that goes to the town and think of all the different kinds of people who might rely on marijuana for illnesses or disabilities. We’ll just go to another town and bring it back.”

While Enfield has been the only town in the region thus far to officially ban sales, only officials from East Windsor and Andover have expressed the readiness to welcome cannabis retailers.

East Windsor First Selectman Jason E. Bowsza said his town has opted not to take the route of a moratorium, and instead the Planning and Zoning Commission has been developing regulations in anticipation of hosting cannabis retailers and cultivators.

“Enfield’s decision to put a ban in place creates opportunities for the town of East Windsor, and

the Planning and Zoning Commission, Board of Selectmen, and town staff are working to make sure we have the appropriate policies and regulations in place so we can capitalize on the opportunity,” Bowsza said.

He added that the revenue implications cannot be overstated. He touted these facts: The recent legislation calls for a 3% municipal sales tax on cannabis products that will go to the town or city where the sale was made; the state will impose a 6.35% tax; and there will be a tax based on the amount of THC — the main psychoactive compound in marijuana — in the product being purchased.

“Three percent of the growth sales is a considerable amount of revenue to the town and we continue to have conversations with various entities that are interested in starting a retail establishment here,” Bowsza said.

Davis said she’d happily travel to East Windsor — a town that borders Enfield — to legally purchase marijuana. Davis uses cannabis for medicinal purposes, but is an advocate for allowing residents to use it recreationally if they choose.

‘A cost to this’

Enfield Mayor Michael Ludwick said that for his town, the 3% sales tax simply isn’t enticing enough.

“The way the state set up the (legislation), they’re going to control the revenue and the towns get stuck with all the costs and the issues that come along with this,” Ludwick said. “There’s a cost to this – it’s not just about the revenue - and there’s a real cost to the local municipalities that we have to absorb that will far outweigh any revenue that we get.”

In Andover on July 12, according to minutes of its Board of Selectmen meeting, the panel discussed the positive economic development and increase in tax revenue cannabis establishments could bring to the town. The selectmen then signed a resolution supporting the implementation of the new recreational marijuana law in Andover.

In Manchester, Gary Anderson, director of planning and economic development, said the PZC is open to moving forward with welcoming cannabis retailers. Toward that end, the town is preparing a text amendment to its zoning regulations that the commission will soon review.

Manchester Mayor Jay Moran said the PZC and Board of Directors have had joint meetings to discuss the subject and will continue to have conversations after the upcoming election.

Suffield First Selectman Melissa Mack said the town — much like East Windsor — opted not to approve a moratorium after a joint meeting with the Board of Selectmen and the Planning and Zoning Commission late last month.

“Given that there would only be one retailer and one micro-cultivator licensed under the current state regulations in Suffield, we are in support of retail sales subject to further consideration of where the establishment would be located within town,” Mack said.

She added, “This is a way to diversify Suffield’s commercial tax base and an opportunity to benefit from sales taxes at the local level.”

Bill Hawkins, the town’s director of planning and development, said Suffield's PZC is in the process of drafting regulations for retailers and cultivators.

In East Hartford, the PZC in August discussed regulations for cannabis-related businesses. It was followed by a public hearing on a proposed text amendment last month to define “cannabis hybrid dealers” and “cannabis dealers” as only being allowed in the I-2 industrial zone and a continued public hearing on Thursday, but no formal decisions have been made.

The right of refusal

Rep. Jason Rojas, D-East Hartford, who served as the lead negotiator during the drafting of the cannabis legislation, said legislators adopted the measure with the intent to give local leaders the ability to make decisions for their respective municipalities in regard to allowing or banning pot sales.

The majority of towns in north-central Connecticut, including Coventry, Ellington, Glastonbury, Hebron, South Windsor, and Windsor, have approved moratoriums on making decisions on whether to allow sales, each with various lengths.

Moratoriums act as a way to give each town’s respective planning and zoning commissions time to create or amend regulations for hosting cannabis businesses in their towns if officials choose to welcome retailers.

East Hartford, Manchester, Vernon, and Windsor are four of 35 towns in the state that have been given priority to receive business licenses for cannabis sales when they begin in 2022 due to being disproportionately affected areas based on unemployment rates and drug conviction rates.

Rojas said implementing the qualifications for certain towns to receive priority for licenses was a top concern for legislators during the drafting of the law.

Windsor Mayor Don Trinks said he’s undecided about whether he’d like to see marijuana sales in town. Windsor approved a four-month moratorium in September.

“I’ve got some reservations about it,” Trinks said. “I don’t think we need anything else to impair our drivers, for one thing. But it’s been made legal. The positives seemingly are that it would reduce illegal sales, there’d be health regulations, and the town would see some sales tax from it. I’m certainly willing to entertain discussions on it.”

Rojas said he doesn’t understand the point of moratoriums. “I don’t know if some of it is a little bit of politics and posturing versus an actual policy need,” he said.

Bowsza also said he doesn’t understand why so many moratoriums are being approved in the region. “Moratoriums don’t get you anywhere,” Bowsza said. “All that does is push a pause button — and for what? You’re pushing pause so you can get the regulations in place to facilitate it, and we think East Windsor can do that without having to have a moratorium.

“What’s the difference between siting a dispensary and siting a package store?” he continued. “I mean practically it’s the same thing. You’re not going to put one of these near a school, a church, or a day care … that’s already in the regulations for package stores. All you’re really talking about is some small tweaks here and there. It doesn’t sound overly burdensome from a regulatory perspective.”

Kaitlyn Krasselt, communications director for the state Department of Consumer Protection, said the department has 48 months to finalize and publish the regulations in order to begin accepting applications from businesses looking to commence cannabis sales.

Discussions await

Some towns have not tackled the matter. Somers Selectman Timothy R.E. Keeney, who’s running unopposed for first selectman in the Nov. 2 election, said he believes his town — which has yet to discuss the matter — will likely not embrace approving marijuana sales. The Board of Selectmen will probably tackle the topic in late November, he said.

“I’m not sure why Somers would want to be a sponsor for marijuana sales,” Keeney said.

In Tolland, PZC Chairman Robert “Andy” Powell said at a meeting last month not to expect any discussion in his town related to the cannabis legislation until after the election.

Both Windsor Locks First Selectman J. Christopher Kervick and Jim Rupert, Bolton’s interim administrative officer, echoed the sentiment.

In Vernon, Shaun Gately, economic development director, said the town has drafted cannabis language, definitions, and safeguards to the town’s zoning regulations for its PZC to review at a meeting next month.

In Stafford, a public hearing has been scheduled for Thursday on a proposed six-month moratorium on the matter.

Per the legislation, until June 30, 2024, municipalities are only able to host one cannabis retailer and one micro-cultivator per every 25,000 residents.

Rojas said municipalities with a population under that threshold are only able to host one retail establishment.

East Hartford and Manchester all have a population over 50,000 and would be eligible to host two of each.

“There was concern by those of us who were negotiating the bill about having too much of a concentration of (marijuana) establishments in any one community, and we didn’t want that to happen,” Rojas said. “But we also knew there was going to be some communities who absolutely would prohibit the establishment of these and we want to be respectful of local decision-making and control, and that’s what the bill allows for.”

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