Dan Haar: Day 1 on the CT cannabis trail with a supporter and critic

Photo of Dan Haar

It was five minutes before the moment of history on Tuesday morning when I met up with state Rep. Josh Elliott on the sidewalk in front of the Zen Leaf cannabis store, a medical dispensary that was about to become one of the state’s first seven locations to sell marijuana to the general adult public.

How did the Hamden Democrat feel on this day after advocating for full legalization from the moment he won a seat in the state House in 2016?

“This is great. This is part of why I got elected. And so now it’s all come to fruition. It couldn’t be more exciting.”

“Downsides?” I asked.

“I guess we’ll see. I don’t see any yet,” the 38-year-old legislator and food store owner said. “I mean, people aren’t going to do more smoking than they were before. That was my argument the entire time.”

A line of about 40 customers snaked down the side of the building in a small shopping center in Meriden. At 9:59 a.m. we hear a cheer from the assembled staff inside the store. The door opens and a guy from Bridgeport named Darren, celebrating his 52nd birthday along with his friend, Kathy, leads the charge inside.

Zen Leaf was the first stop on my Cannabis Tour No. 2 with Elliott. On a Monday in early March, 2019, we trekked up to Massachusetts together to witness and participate in the newly opened sales of ganja to our north – with an eye toward legalization in our home state.

On Tuesday, we would hit three of the seven stores in Meriden, New Haven and Branford, not to sample the fare or survey the customers but to watch this meticulously designed market start to take shape. And to talk about addiction, justice and what it all means amid the festival atmosphere as the stores handed out free swag, played music and at Zen Leaf, offered customers free lunch from food trucks.

Elliott hoped to see a sustained rush but had his doubts. “It’s the first day,” he said. “By tomorrow there’s not going to be lines.”

As it happened, he was off by just a bit.

New marijuana users?

We struck up a conversation with a handful of executives and managers at Verano Holdings Corp., the Chicago-based owner of Zen Leaf, another dispensary in Waterbury and CTPharma, the state’s largest growing and production operation, in Rocky Hill.

Elliott asked whether they were concerned about the underground market, untaxed and often cheaper – yes, they are – and about data on whether retail expansion leads to new users.

“We’re not bringing cannabis to Connecticut,” said Rino Ferrarese, executive vice president and head of the northern region for Verano, which has more than 100 retail locations in 13 states and 14 growing facilities. “It’s been here.”

At the same time, Aaron Miles, the Verano chief investment officer, says, “a lot of people are realizing the power of the plant.”

The line is working its way down in size. We stop into the Sweetheal CBD store next door, which isn’t seeing much spillover business, and head to Affinity Health and Wellness in New Haven’s Westville neighborhood.

Elliott reminded me that when we toured Western Massachusetts four years ago, stores there had been open for four months – and we still had to wait to enter.

A smooth first day amid worries

A jovial Ray Pantalena Jr., managing partner at Affinity, told us he had hired 20 new employees for the general retail opening. “We’ve been working very hard for over a year to make this happen. And we’re very happy.”

No problems, no incidents, no hiccups. Pantalena, in a teal blue, buttoned-down shirt, mused that the product selection was not what it will be soon, as the program just rolled out. But he said, “Gummies are in.”

Under the state’s rules for the cannabis market, Pantalena has a right to open two joint ventures with so-called social equity partners – co-owners who fit income and residency requirements -- under the state’s rules. He’s looking at a small growing operation and a second store for adult-use only.  

As we talked with owners and managers we could sense a concern about the number of stores that will open in Connecticut. Will they all have enough business? Pantalena predicts 20 retail locations in 2023 and a total of 50 by the end of 2024 – but the state is prepared to hand out a lot more licenses than that along with dozens of growing permits.

Lamont signed the legalization bill into law 20 months ago in the late spring of 2021 and the opening is more or less on track, barely behind the original goal of late end-of-2022 goal.  Much of the work has been in making sure at least half of the new businesses in the market have social equity owners; making sure revenues go back into the cities that suffered most in the failed war on drugs; and working toward expunging criminal marijuana conviction records.

Those justice issues along with ending the stigma of marijuana use -- not economics -- drove Elliott and the other progressive Dems who crafted the bill.  Still, a robust trade matters.

“Everyone is complaining it took a long time to get here,” Pantalena said. But he added, “This could have turned out really bad. Taking time and being that thoughtful, the road is a lot smoother.”

'I know what it could have been'

As we hung out in the outer waiting area at Affinity with a reporter from the New Haven Independent, an employee monitoring the line outside reported back to the security manager.

“So, there’s nothing out there right now,” she said.

My phone said 11:44 a.m.  Sure, a steady stream of customers. But no waiting line. And, we later learned, it was pretty much the same at the other stores we visited – plenty of business but no long waits after the first rush.

Elliott shook his head. “Did you ever expect that the day legal weed sales started, that there would be no line at any point? We totally missed the boat here in Connecticut.”

By that he meant the chance to make the huge splash that Massachusetts saw when it opened adult-use stores just over four years ago. Still, for those of us who have prodded Connecticut to join the modern era, Tuesday counted as a triumph of reform.

“I’m disappointed because I know what it could have been. I’m comparing it with perfect, that’s all,” Elliott tells me, explaining his mixed reaction. “If this was the first state, you wouldn’t be able to drive down Whalley Avenue…It’s exciting in a way that people here want to see it, but not exciting in a way that the dam has burst.”

“We’ll be all right,” said Ed Hawthorne, president of the Connecticut AFL-CIO, who had arrived with a colleague as the United Food and Commercial Workers Union pushes to organize cannabis workers – under favorable conditions mandated by the law. Hawthorne calls the law fair and just, adding, “Josh was a big advocate.”

We all made history

At RISE in Branford, we miss the steel drum band by an hour but we arrive to an early afternoon lull in sales, but still steady.  The army of some 50 workers in black shirts with green block lettering seems huge.

“We’ve seen this movie before,” said Shannon Weaver, communications chief for Chicago-based Green Thumb Industries, which has three stores in Connecticut and 77 in all, in 15 states. “It’s an all-hands-on-deck type of approach.”

Elliott, elected in 2016, immediately took up legalization and infused energy into the cause that had long been a passion of a few lawmakers, notably Juan Candelaria, D-New Haven. He played less of a role in drafting the bill after momentum was clear – typical of his approach in which he supports sweeping, progressive ideas.

He’d like to see ranked-choice voting, more prison reforms and reform of laws on hallucinogenic mushrooms.

 For Tuesday, cannabis was enough to think about.  Just after 5 p.m. the state Department of Consumer Protection, which created this regulated market, reported that sales at the seven locations totaled $251,276.  That comes out to about $20 per minute for every bud-tender at all the stores, without a break.

A fellow named Jay, who’s in real estate, made his purchase at exactly 4:20 p.m. – the signal moment for pot consumers -- at the Fine Fettle store in Newington, where I stopped on my way home.  Jay’s receipt showed the timing. “I feel like I just made history,” he said as I photographed it.

We all made history, though later than Elliott would have preferred.

“We could have done this years ago,” he said. “We should have done this years ago.”