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Meriden business owner, city explore opportunity in new marijuana law

MERIDEN — Established hemp farmer and city resident Luis Vega is waiting for the state to establish its social equity council so he can apply for a license to grow recreational marijuana in the city.

The state’s new recreational marijuana law included provisions that among other things allowed for market inclusion for people who met certain qualifications. Those applicants will be selected first and must make up 50 percent of retail and cultivation licenses. 

The law, which went into effect on July 1, requires social equity applicant entities to be owned and controlled by individuals who:

Have a median household income over each of the previous three years which is not more than three times Connecticut’s median income and have lived in a disproportionately impacted community for either five of the last 10 years or nine of their first 17 years of life.

A “disproportionately impacted” community is one where the unemployment rate is over 10% or that has an unusually high rate of drug arrests and convictions compared to other communities.

Applicants will likely be chosen by lottery, according to the state Department of Consumer Protection. 

Vega, who lives on North Third Street, was among the first 65 people in the state to get a license to grow hemp. Vega operates leased farms in Shelton, Monroe, and two other locations under the name Wepa! Farms and has been featured in Hemp Grower Magazine and Forbes.

He was also awarded a $150,000 grant for minority growers seeking to enter the cannabis industry. 

He recently opened the Hemp Wellness Center next to the city’s only medical marijuana dispensary on East Main Street.

“We hope so,” Vega said about filing as a social equity applicant. “We have to get a new license and follow the process. We are at the whim of the state and now waiting on the state’s guidelines.”

Vega is searching for a commercial broker to help him locate a suitable location to open a large-scale cultivation operation in areas allowed by the city. That could be an adaptive reuse of some of Meriden’s former factories or a newer facility in the city’s industrial zone on Research Parkway.

“I’m open to whatever is available to fit the ciriteria the state has allowed,” he said. “And whatever guidelines the city of Meriden has to follow.” 

Vega hopes to provide tax revenue, build jobs in the community and improve infrastructure in the surrounding area. But there is a finite number of licenses available in the city. 

City Economic Development Director Joseph Feest said there has been substantial interest in the cannabis market in Meriden.

“We are getting calls from both large and small companies just asking what our stance is going to be on cannabis,” Feest said in an email. “The city is centrally located and a very diverse population and that is attractive to many of the companies. It would be nice to see them come into one of our adaptive reuse buildings but it is too early to tell what zones this is going to be allowed in.”

Unlike others in the industry, Vega won’t have to wait for the city to craft its cannabis zoning regulations. Large scale cultivation — over 10,000 square feet—is already approved in the city’s industrial zones. 

Dispensaries, hybrid retailers —medical and recreational dispensaries— and micro-cultivators, however, are on pause.

Moratorium passes

The City Council, in a unanimous decision Monday night, voted to enact a three-month moratorium on new cannabis establishments, from Aug. 6 to Nov. 19. 

A state law that had legalized cannabis for recreational use by adults 21 years old and older went into effect on July 1. Meriden is among several municipalities statewide where local officials have proposed adopting moratoriums regarding new cannabis establishments.

The moratorium the council adopted Monday night would not apply to a cannabis establishment that cultivates cannabis or manufactures cannabis products or food and beverages on a large scale. Acting Planning Director Paul Dickson, speaking during the public hearing, explained those types of establishments are already covered under existing city zoning regulations.

Dickson explained the city had already developed those regulations when a previous cannabis cultivator had sought approval to build such an establishment in Meriden. Despite going through the process, that facility was never built, Dickson explained. 

The moratorium would apply to other establishments, including retailers, hybrid retailers and micro-cultivators, according to the adopted resolution.

The council voted to refer proposed zoning revisions that would permit retail cannabis establishments, via a new retail cannabis overlay zone, to its Economic Development, Housing & Zoning Committee and to the Planning Commission. A public hearing regarding those proposed revisions has been scheduled for Aug. 17. Further details regarding that upcoming hearing were not discussed Monday night.   

City Councilor Chad Cardillo asked Dickson whether planning staff would be able to put together new language around cannabis establishments in a time span less than three months or if it would take that entire time to do so. 

Dickson responded by noting his department had already submitted two proposals for regulating retail cannabis to the council. But, he noted, those proposals are “open to revision.”

“It is kind of evolving as we all understand these types of uses,” Dickson said, adding those proposals were drafted based on best recommendations or reviews of regulations where recreational cannabis had been established. 

Officials are planning to further review those existing regulations as well as visit existing recreational dispensaries, to further analyze and refine them, Dickson explained. 

Retail cap

Cardillo asked Dickson to clarify the number of retail cannabis establishments that would be permitted in Meriden under state law. 

Dickson said based on guidance received from the state and based on Meriden’s current population, the city is going to be capped at three establishments. That cap would be in place until 2024. 

Cardillo asked, with the moratorium in place, whether potential developers would be able to communicate with city officials to begin discussing the possibility of opening a cannabis establishment in the city. 

Dickson said even with the moratorium in place, there is no language stating city staff can’t meet with potential developers interested in opening new cannabis establishments. In those meetings, he explained, it is established that the discussions are non-binding. 

“We meet with people all the time and actually have met with people who are interested in doing this,” Dickson. The advice his staff offers to those individuals is to “get all your paperwork in line.”

He added, “As as we move through the process, we will be able to give them better guidance.”



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