WETHERSFIELD - A lot’s changed since Rocky Hill resident Harriet Unger was battling breast cancer three years ago.
With medical marijuana becoming increasingly available in the form of the state Department of Consumer Protection’s initiative to issue production facility and dispensary licenses, she wonders if her own struggle with extreme illness could have been easier.
“What would I have done if there was a dispensary near me?” Unger said before Wethersfield’s Town Planning and Zoning Commission on April 1. “I would have found relief. I went through radiation and it made me sick. I suppose I could have found marijuana, and been jailed or at the very least heavily fined.”
Corey Jaquez, a physician in West Hartford, qualifies patients like Unger for medical cannabis treatment. Often the obstacle they come to is not in whether they would benefit from such treatment, but how to obtain it.
“This portion of the interview is met with universal frustration, when I tell them there is no dispensary,” Jaquez wrote in a letter to the TPZ, which is in the midst of entertaining a proposal to establish medical marijuana dispensary zoning regulations in town. “Many have illegal sources, and those that don’t are the sickest.”
Jessica Pelletier knows what it’s like to be at the very depths of one’s health-at 22 years old she was having tumors removed from her breasts. Now she is trying to become a resource for patients looking for alternatives to deal with the ailments she is all too familiar with.
Pelletier is applying for a dispensary license from Connecticut’s medical marijuana rollout program in an effort to open shop in Wethersfield. Part of a rigorous application process-prospective licensees need proof of a business plan, reliable financial backing, and a pharmacist on staff-is town planning and zoning approval, but Wethersfield has not finalized its regulations yet.
“I need to have regulations in place if I’m even to be considered by the DCP,” Pelletier told TPZ commissioners at the meeting.
Pelletier and other representatives from her own Biotech Relief Pharmaceuticals will have to wait longer, as the TPZ has once again continued the public hearing that began on March 18. The discussion is how to-if at all-tailor regulation for a special permit application process for medical marijuana dispensaries.
“We don’t want to adopt something that’s incomplete or inadequate,” said TPZ Chairman Richard Roberts. “You would be able to apply for a special permit under the regulations and any changes we made after that would not affect you.”
One thing the Commission is considering is whether dispensaries should be subject to a yearly license renewal process, something Pelletier says would happen at the state level anyway. With such a mechanism, Wethersfield would have the right to revoke the special permit should conditions or practices within a facility be deemed to have “negative consequences”, said Wethersfield Town Planner Peter Gillespie.
“It’s an unusual occurrence, but it is a legal remedy,” Gillespie said.
Another option is limiting a dispensary special permit to just one facility, one that the town’s attorney has advised against, Gillespie said.
“He’s implying that the ability to provide a monopoly might be questionable,” he said. “There’s only a limited amount of facilities being licensed, so the likelihood that we would have more than one is pretty slim, so I would have no problem removing that from the regulation.”
For now, the number is 3 to 5 dispensaries that will get the go-ahead to open up. Wethersfield’s situation is not unique-municipalities throughout the state have been scrambling to draft zoning regulations for what is still unprecedented in the still growing acceptance of cannabis as an alternative source of medicine. One of few guidelines towns and cities have is a 1,000 foot buffer from a dispensary or production facility and churches, schools, daycare centers, playgrounds, and residential areas.
“That’s a state regulation,” Roberts said. “We’ve kind of just been piggy backing off of that.”
But the towns have wiggle room to adjust it, hence an ongoing discussion in Newington regarding how. If Newington’s own process-which has gone on for months now-is any indication, Wethersfield has a long way to go in figuring out that and any other components of regulating medical marijuana facilities in its own town.
Legally, the concept might be new, but for the Department of Consumer Protection-reported 1400 qualifying patients living with conditions that include cancer, glaucoma, immune deficiency syndromes, Parkinson’s Disease, Multiple Sclerosis, nerve tissue damage, epilepsy, Cachexia, Wasting Syndrome, Crohn’s Disease, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, the need is not, Pelletier says.
“Dispensaries provide a vital public health service for people in our communities who are sick,” she said. “Medical marijuana is a necessity for people-it’s not a recreational device.”
But the stigma surrounding medical cannabis-driven by perceptions about marijuana in general-lingers in the air, so there is a lot of apprehension from the decision makers on the TPZ.
“It says to kids that pot’s okay,” said TPZ Member George Oickle. “Even though we’re calling it medical marijuana, it opens the door to what’s happening in Colorado with recreational pot. I’m willing to go through it [the discussion on regulations] but I think it’s a waste of time because I’m still against it.”
Other members have not been as conservative, but less than enthusiastic about the idea.
“We’ve never had something like this in Connecticut,” Roberts said to Pelletier during the meeting. “So nobody knows what it is. Can you give us a better idea of what will be going on there?”
Biotech Relief Pharmaceuticals will run as a “health and wellness center” where pharmaceutical professionals dispense cannabis treatment to qualifying patients, Pelletier said. Since security will be paramount, patients will gain access to the facility through a buzz-in lock system that requires them to swipe a card. This will allow staff to check the state’s database to verify that the individual has been declared eligible for the treatment, she said.
For Commissioners and some of the residents that spoke out against the proposal, it came down to “characteristics” of the town.
“I’m still wrestling with how this plays into how where we see Wethersfield down the road,” said TPZ member Angelo Fazzina.
Wethersfield resident Joe Hickey expressed similar sentiments.
“Although I don’t question the desirability of a medical marijuana facility somewhere in the state, I question the desirability of one here in Wethersfield,” Hickey said. “A medical marijuana facility would have a socioeconomic impact as it would reduce Wethersfield’s image as a desirable suburb.”
One might say the same about liquor stores, and the town has plenty of those, said Wethersfield resident Felipe Molero.
There are 9 liquor stores in Wethersfield-all on either the Silas Deane Highway or the Berlin Turnpike-according to yellowpages.com.
“They [dispensaries] should be given the same latitude as liquor stores,” Molero said. “If we’re allowed to sell liquor, how much different is a beneficial medical marijuana facility?”
The public hearing will continue at the TPZ’s next meeting, scheduled for April 15.