BRIDGEPORT, Conn. — This state’s law approving the sale of marijuana for medical purposes has been on the books for two years, but the drug is still not available.
Among the challenges has been finding dispensing locations acceptable to Connecticut towns and cities. Fairfield and West Haven let applicants for licenses to operate dispensaries know they would not pass zoning muster; other municipalities, including Madison, New Canaan and Westport, have imposed moratoriums of as long as a year while their zoning rules are reviewed; and this month the Bridgeport zoning board turned down a licensee.
The law, signed by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, a Democrat, in May 2012, requires that a pharmacist dispense the drug, and limits the list of qualifying ailments to 11. Four manufacturers and six dispensaries have so far been licensed.
Yet even with the restrictions, those who are trying to open the facilities are running into opposition from residents who are concerned that a dispensary nearby would reduce the stigma for children to try marijuana, invite black markets or lower property values.
Twenty-one states and the District of Columbia have passed laws permitting medical marijuana. Only Connecticut mandates an on-site pharmacist.
In the patchwork of marijuana laws emerging across the country, Connecticut is somewhere in the middle: not as adventurous as Colorado and Washington, which have decriminalized marijuana for recreational use for people over 21, or California, where residents can buy medical marijuana for common conditions such as sleeplessness, loss of appetite and anxiety. (Anyone from other states can too, using a hotel room as a residence.) There is no official count of marijuana dispensaries in California, but Los Angeles alone is believed to have over 500. Critics say California’s porous rules, set forth in a 1996 law, have essentially legalized marijuana as a recreational drug.
Connecticut acted before neighboring New York, where Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, a Democrat and longtime opponent of legalizing medical marijuana, said in January that he would approve an experimental program allowing up to 20 hospitals to prescribe the drug.
Proponents of medical marijuana have also faced a struggle in New Jersey. The state enacted its Compassionate Care Act in 2010, when Jon S. Corzine, a Democrat, was governor. It offers immunity from prosecution to people using marijuana for a range of ailments and makes a provision for six “alternative treatment centers” to dispense the drug. Three have opened. The current governor, Chris Christie, a Republican, is opposed to the law and has limited edible marijuana to sick children.
The first Connecticut dispensaries are not scheduled to open until the summer, but already almost 2,000 patients certified by doctors as eligible to benefit from medical marijuana have registered with the State Department of Consumer Protection by supplying proof of identity and a photograph, and paying a $100 fee.
Some, like Angela Fiorini, a former 911 police dispatcher who is undergoing chemotherapy for follicular lymphoma, are smoking marijuana they buy from street-corner dealers with immunity from prosecution because legislators felt it was cruel to make genuinely sick people wait for the dispensaries.
Opponents have slowed the drug’s rollout. Last month, Bridgeport’s zoning board turned down a location in a former library building chosen by a licensed dispenser, D & B Wellness. It would have been the most convenient dispensary for Fairfield County, but neighbors objected to the site’s proximity to a low-income apartment house.
Minnie Simmons, whose accounting office is near the proposed Bridgeport site, said she had worried that the presence of security guards and cameras would let people know that it was a marijuana dispensary and possibly encourage casual marijuana smokers to induce patients to sell them the drug, creating a black market. Children, she said, might also conclude that if some people can obtain marijuana legally, “it’s not such a bad thing.”
“We’re not opposed to helping the people. We don’t like the location,” she said. “Would you want that next to an apartment building with children? And with a Walgreen’s you don’t know what I purchased. If I come out of a marijuana facility, you specifically know what my situation is.”
D & B’s lawyer will appeal to the city and the courts, but the company has only until Saturday to show it has zoning approval.
William M. Rubenstein, the state’s commissioner of consumer protection, said he would “not speculate about any course of action” after that.
“Assuming the Bridgeport facility does not get its zoning approval, patients in Fairfield County will have to travel farther for their medicine,” Mr. Rubenstein said.
Angela D’Amico, a principal in D & B, said the board’s rejection reflected a lack of understanding about marijuana’s medical benefits. Calling it “miracle medicine,” she said that it helped her with her own arthritis and insomnia when she used the drug with a medical marijuana card she obtained legally in California, and that she wanted others to experience such relief.
Connecticut’s law restricts marijuana to residents who are over 18 and have received a physician’s certification that they have one of the 11 conditions that marijuana might soothe. The qualifying ailments are cancer, glaucoma, H.I.V. or AIDS, Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis, spinal cord nerve damage, epilepsy, Crohn’s disease, cachexia, wasting syndrome and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Mr. Rubenstein said that established pharmacies could theoretically qualify as dispensaries, but that given the opposition in federal laws to marijuana, they might not want to risk the federal registrations they need for selling controlled substances.
He said he did not think that a sometimes amorphous diagnosis like PTSD might open the door to widespread use, because every patient would need to have a doctor confirm that “the benefits of using marijuana outweigh any detriments.” Stronger controlled substances are already legally prescribed for the disorder, he noted.
The medical marijuana can be grown and produced as capsules, oils, pastries and patches, as well as the more common leaves and stems. Some forms have been shorn of the chemical — tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC — that creates the marijuana high. No more than 2.5 ounces can be dispensed within 30 days.
The six dispensary licensees, chosen from among 27 applicants who paid $5,000 apiece, are dispersed around the state and are, in addition to Bridgeport, in Branford, Bristol, Hartford, South Windsor and Uncasville. Mr. Rubenstein said the selections were based on business experience, financial wherewithal and operational plans. All except the Bridgeport site have received zoning approvals.
Patients with state marijuana cards can already obtain marijuana on the street without fear of prosecution.
Ms. Fiorini, 51, who is from Monroe, Conn., said that for eight months she had been buying the drug from dealers in Bridgeport for roughly $120 an ounce that she smoked or baked in brownies. Until she began using it, she said, prescribed pills had not alleviated the nausea she experiences from chemotherapy.
“Within 10 minutes of smoking marijuana, every single symptom of chemo was completely gone,” she said. “I went from vomiting to eating a full meal.”
Ms. Fiorini is looking forward to buying marijuana at a dispensary because it will be safer than buying from drug dealers. She has spoken out at public meetings on behalf of Ms. D’Amico’s application.
Ms. D’Amico, 56, a Brooklyn-raised woman who was a publisher of art prints for 28 years, began investigating marijuana because she had heard that it could slow the progress of Alzheimer’s, which had affected seven aunts and an uncle. Her business partner, Karen Barski, 42, a registered nurse, said she learned how marijuana calmed the tremors of Parkinson’s and reduced migraine pain.
Nick Tamborrino, 37, a pharmacist for Yale New Haven Health System, applied to open a dispensary — Bluepoint Apothecary and Wellness — in Branford. Dispensing marijuana, he said, should be no different from dispensing other controlled substances that he furnishes as a pharmacist. He was able to win approval from the Branford zoning board for a rented storefront in an industrial area.
“I didn’t want it on Main Street in the public eye,” Mr. Tamborrino said. “I wanted it at a discreet location.”
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