By John Schroyer
The relatively quick growth of Connecticut’s medical cannabis market illustrates how a limited MMJ program can blossom into something bigger over time, giving hope to other states in a similar position.
Connecticut’s program formally launched in the fall of 2014, with the state initially allowing just six dispensaries and four registered cultivators.
Aside from the tight caps on business licenses, Connecticut’s medical cannabis law also requires all dispensaries to be owned and managed by licensed pharmacists – making it one of the strictest programs in the country.
But demand has kicked into high gear recently, and new business opportunities have cropped up.
Case in point: In 2015, Connecticut announced that it would license three more dispensaries, and officials revealed the winners earlier this year.
The number of registered patients in early 2015 was just over 3,000. By the time the state announced the three new dispensaries earlier this year, that had jumped to 8,228. The count now stands at 9,035.
“Our program has been growing at about 100 new patients per week since it started,” said Lora Rae Anderson, director of communications for the Connecticut Department of Consumer Protection, which oversees the program.
The fact that officials decided to allow more dispensaries speaks volumes about how the program has gone so far and how it is perceived in the community. The state likely wouldn’t move forward with such a plan if there had been a community backlash against the industry or if lawmakers had problems with it.
Officials have also paved the way for even more growth.
Last month, a state legislative committee approved another six medical conditions for the MMJ program, bringing the total to 17. That could help boost patient numbers by nearly 50% or more.
“By the end of this year, (the state could have) close to 13,000 patients,” said Raj Patel, a partner at Southern CT Wellness & Healing, one of the three new dispensaries that plans to open soon.
Patel and his partners are focusing on retrofitting the location they’ve found in Milford, a centrally located municipality in the state. He hopes to be open and serving patients within a few months.
“That location has been secured, and we only found out just a week ago about the licensing. So everything is going according to plan,” Patel said.
The increase in dispensary licenses could lift all boats, even those of existing MMJ businesses in the state.
“I’m fine with it,” said Angela D’Amico, owner of Compassionate Care Center in Bethel, about 45 minutes from Milford, where Patel’s dispensary (and another of the three new dispensaries) will be located.
D’Amico estimated that her dispensary sees upwards of 225 patients a day, roughly double the figure from a year ago.
Existing dispensaries will likely be able to sustain their current base – and possibly grow it – as plenty of new patients will be coming into the fold given the expansion of the medical conditions list.
Connecticut is very different from most MMJ states in that patients aren’t allowed to simply buy wherever they want; they’re required by law to only buy at the dispensary they’re registered with.
That’s one reason Tom Nicholas, owner of Prime Wellness of Connecticut in South Windsor, really isn’t worried about the new dispensaries cutting into his bottom line. All three will be located in the southern part of the state, about an hour and 15 minutes from his location.
“I don’t think it’s necessarily going to have an impact on our dispensary, because all those new ones are located down in (southern Connecticut),” Nicholas said. “I think it’s going to be business as usual.”
Still, Nicholas does have some issues with the state’s decision to expand its MMJ program.
He questioned why officials would group the new dispensaries in such a small geographic location. All three are within about a half hour of each other.
“To me, it doesn’t make sense. To me, the reason you give out more licenses is so patients will have more access,” Nicholas said.
Anderson replied that one reason was because nine of the 19 applications the state received for the new licenses wanted to be located in Milford, partly because the town has very friendly zoning laws when it comes to MMJ businesses.
Nicholas, however, also isn’t convinced that demand warrants another three dispensaries, and he’s not sure the patient base will continue to grow as quickly as some think. He said Connecticut probably would have been fine for the rest of 2016 with just six dispensaries.
“When we got a license… we were told there would be about 15,000 patients by now. So I think the pace has actually been slow,” Nicholas said. “For some licensees, it’s been almost too slow, because there’s a lot of capacity on the grow side, and certainly more on the dispensary side.”
Part of what happened to help spur patient growth – and persuade the state to license three new dispensaries – was that the commissioner of the Department of Consumer Protection began a campaign last year to educate the public on the availability of MMJ.
Even so, Nicholas said there’s still a lot of people in the state who are completely unaware that MMJ is an option for some medical patients.
“The biggest issue with patients coming on board is a lot of people in Connecticut don’t know we have a medical marijuana program… or if they know about it, they know very little about it,” Nicholas said.
Patel and his partners aren’t worried about that, though. More than anything, they’re excited for the new opportunity.
“So far, we haven’t encountered any obstacles. Everyone we’ve spoken to has been extremely helpful and supportive,” Patel said.
John Schroyer can be reached at [email protected]