Recreational marijuana sales begin at Meriden dispensary

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MERIDEN — City and state leaders joined the general public Tuesday to welcome the end of cannabis prohibition in the state and the arrival of a new market in the local economy.

Zen Leaf, formerly Willow Brook Wellness at 1371 E. Main St., opened its doors to adult recreational cannabis customers at 10 a.m. A line started forming at about 9 a.m. just as officials addressed a small crowd gathered in an upper parking lot. Meriden was one of seven locations that opened Tuesday for recreational sales.

“The city of Meriden is proud to be one of those locations here in the state of Connecticut,” said Mayor Kevin Scarpati, stressing the city’s central location and urging patience. “It’s going to be an exciting time no doubt, but the product will be available for your enjoyment in the days and years ahead.”

Scarpati praised city staff who ensured the City Council understood the benefits of allowing a limited number of recreational dispensaries and growing operations. 

“The economic growth will have an impact on municipalities and the statewide economy,” Scarpati said.

Customers came from as far away as Rhode Island as well as North Haven, Middletown, and nearby Wallingford, which has a prohibition on cannabis sales and cultivation. Police were parked across the street at Taino Prime. Employees of Zen Leaf and its growing partner CT Pharma were on hand to aid customers. Verano, a national cannabis grower and retailer in 14 states, bought the former Willow Brook and CT Pharma last year. All of the seven licensed retailers that opened Tuesday were medical marijuana dispensaries that received licenses to expand into the recreational market. 

Customers in line were all ages and were served coffee and doughnuts while waiting to get in. 

“I just had knee replacement surgery and marijuana helps with the pain,” said Pete Belommizi of Wallingford. 

Ron Brooker of North Haven was surprised the line wasn’t longer.

“I waited about five minutes,” Brooker said. “I thought it would be a lot longer. “I don’t know where the one in New Haven is and I have to limit my driving.”

 Gary Duvall was among many Meriden residents eager to come to Zen Leaf Tuesday. 

“I was waiting for it,” Duvall said, while handing over his identification to a Zen Leaf worker. “I’m getting some gummies so I don’t have to smoke. I’m a singer.”

Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz told the crowd the municipalities that host dispensaries will receive a 3 percent share of tax revenue generated by cannabis sales. The state will receive 6.35 percent and another tax 10 to 15 percent based on THC volume.  

“Today is an opportunity to recapture sales tax that is going to other states,” Bysiewicz said. “Today we take back those dollars and reinvest in the state. That funding is going to provide business capital and technological assistance. We’re looking forward to turning over a new leaf.”

‘Turning point’

Bysiewicz touted the law passed in 2021 that legalized recreational cannabis use and its approach to promoting social equity focused on the neighborhoods most impacted by the war on drugs. The law allows for expungement of past cannabis-related crimes and reserves half of all cannabis business licenses for people from impacted neighborhoods. Additionally, more than half the revenue from cannabis sales will be dedicated to a new fund that will be invested in those neighborhoods. 

“Today marks a turning point in the injustices caused by the war on drugs, most notably now that there is a legal alternative to the dangerous, unregulated, underground market for cannabis sales,” Gov. Ned Lamont stated in a statement. “Together with our partners in the legislature and our team of professionals at the Department of Consumer Protection, we’ve carefully crafted a securely regulated market that prioritizes public health, public safety, social justice, and equity. I look forward to continuing our efforts to ensure that this industry remains inclusive and safe as it develops.”

This new industry is expected to bring hundreds of new, good paying jobs to Connecticut as businesses continue to open and expand, including work in production and jobs directly handling cannabis products, as well as industry support like technical jobs, administrative and information technology positions, and security, officials said. 

“An old conviction for a low-level cannabis possession shouldn’t hold someone back from pursuing their career, housing, professional, and educational aspirations,”  Bysiewicz said. “Gov. Lamont and I welcome this change to help people regain their freedom and the opportunity to pursue the careers and jobs they rightfully deserve.”

Bysiewicz added that the state Department of Public Health, the state Department of Children and Families and the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services will stay “laser focused” on drug abuse prevention and protecting children. 

The state Department of Consumer Protection has overseen the regulation of the adult-use cannabis market in the state, ensuring that it prioritizes public health and safety, said Consumer Protection Commissioner Michelle H. Seagull.

“This is an exciting day for Connecticut and our team at the Department of Consumer Protection, which has worked tirelessly to stand up this safe, well-regulated and equitable new market,” Seagull said. “We will continue to ensure the patients in our medical marijuana program receive the standard of care and service they have come to expect, and as always, we encourage all adults who choose to purchase and use cannabis to do so responsibly.”

Seagull added the legalization of cannabis is for adults only and encouraged responsibility against impaired driving or leaving THC products where children can find them. 

Social equity

The Social Equity Council was created by that same 2021 law and has been tasked with ensuring the adult-use cannabis market is developed equitably and to bring funds from the program back to the communities hit hardest by the war on drugs.

“The opening of this new marketplace is an important milestone in the work of the Social Equity Council and a culmination of a lot of hard work over the past year,” said Paul O. Robertson, deputy commissioner of the Department of Economic and Community Development and chair of the Social Equity Council. “In my role as chair, I will be focused on ensuring we fully capitalize on this opportunity to lend a helping hand to those negatively impacted by the war on drugs.”

Seagull said the state can expect to see more dispensaries opening up in 2023 as social equity licenses move forward.

There were a lot of smiles in the line, and the staff was dedicated to making the customers feel comfortable, Verano employees said. All sales were cash only, and customers were asked to use ATM machines on site prior to ordering. Some customers pre-ordered online and the line moved quickly. 

When asked how long a group had waited, one customer shouted: “I’ve been waiting 50 years.”   

mgodin@record-journal.com203-317-2255Twitter: @Cconnbiz

"I’ve been waiting 50 years."

-Zen Leaf patron

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