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CT’s Med-Weed Bill Should Help Small Producers

Lo, I am dismayed. I have spent years of my life fighting to change the prohibition against marijuana. I’ve written about it, protested over it, ran political campaigns to change the law. Heck, it could even be said my advocacy landed me in jail for it.

I understand I am one small part of an army of soldiers for weed who have pushed the law to this point. Yet I would like some return on the investment of my time and personal sacrifice working to build a climate where legalization is possible.

It is okay to want in on the ground floor of the business end of medical marijuana. Getting certified to grow marijuana in Connecticut will be a license to grow money.

Once you are licensed as a medical producer, when the recreational use laws come down the pipe in five years, medical producers are situated to cash in on that, too.  However, I don’t see average people like me being able to do it.

The Nutmeg legislature finally has a bill that the governor looks like he is going to sign, and it is a giveaway to out-of-state business interests.  It is labeled Raised Bill No. 5389, and called “An Act Concerning the Palliative Use of Marijuana.”

After reading it thoroughly yesterday, I realize that I must resign to the category of pipe dream my idea of being a legal drug kingpin. It’s not going to happen.

In seeking to prevent a California-style Wild West of wacky medical tobacky, Connecticut is going too far the other way. The bill provides protections for patients and caregivers and doctors.

Then the bill divides the growing and the selling into two classes of business enterprises – producers and distributors. The Department of Consumer Protection will regulate and license the producers and distributors. Doctors can be neither producers nor distributors.

Consumer Protection will only be able to license between three and ten producers. Some reports suggest Connecticut has at least 300,000 people potentially ready to apply for prescriptions for medical grade cannabis.

Figure that one patient can use an ounce of weed or more a month. Figure that one well-grown hydroponic plant will need four months to produce 3 ounces. That means the ten producers will need to be high volume operations, each with a minimum of 30,000 square feet.

This assumes the grow operations will not be outdoors. While higher yield (up to 8-10 ounces per plant) but outdoors is higher risk (bugs, deer, thieves, federal government), less controlled (maybe seeds will get you) and it is only an annual harvest. The harvest needs to be perpetual, year-round.

Figure 30,000 square feet assumes a start-up cost of at least $1 million dollars. The $25,000 one-time license fee to Consumer Protection is the least of the expenses. Consider an up-front investment of at least six months without payment for high-power lights, seeds, fertilizer, electricity, security, and labor – this is a very labor intensive crop.

This is not counting the fact that the DCP can ask a producer to keep a $2 million escrow account in a bank as security on the operation. I was thinking I could come up with investors to front a few hundred thousand, maybe. But $2 million?

I read also businesses from Colorado and California were lobbying the legislature to make the bill more acceptable to their interests.  Why wouldn’t they? This bill is a license to grow money, and could be a huge boon to our economy.

But by focusing on industrial scale operations, the legislature is freezing out the smaller producer. It is like a giveaway to Home Depot instead of Park Street Hardware. And it will only be a matter of time before Pfizer and Eli Lilly and other major pharma giants try to squish out the competition.

By not including a provision enforcing provincialism and small producers in the bill, Connecticut will give away a potential home-grown industry to out-of-state interests.  The pushers of the bill will say the state wants to control the industry and keep it reputable so the feds have no reason to invade.

At the same time, the industry is attempting to control the legislation by making it impossible for small, well-run grow operations to exist.

Perhaps future re-writes of the law can expand to smaller operations, but the state is granting a virtual monopoly to big, out-of-state businesses.  The law should include provisions for local producers. What is to say that these big out-of-state interests aren’t controlled by Russian mob money or Chinese mafia?

This is a problem with the Dutch marijuana market. If we don’t allow for local interests, people we don’t know will come in and attempt to take over. We must protect our ability to provide for our own patients medical needs.

Producers will have to partner with distributors, who, under the bill must be licensed pharmacies. That may be okay, but the demise of the family pharmacy combined with the rise of the corporate drug store makes it seem highly unlikely that CVS or Walgreens will be selling the pharmaceutical grade bud.

Again, this creates the problem of multiple millions of dollars needing to start up an operation. Perhaps once pharmacies or dispensaries open up, and we loosen the laws, smaller operators can get in on the action.

I understand the need to make everything as clean as possible, so as to prevent federal law enforcement interference. Rhode Island put its medical weed program on hold while the U.S. attorney there threatens to prosecute the three growers Rhode Island has selected.

It would help if Gov. Malloy joined Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chaffee, Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin and other officials from Colorado and Washington in asking the federal government to reclassify marijuana as a drug with medical benefits.

Should Gov. Malloy sign the bill, he has a responsibility to advocate for a change to the federal laws.

And while this column seems to be focusing on the business end of things, let’s remember that in the end, medical marijuana is about easing the pain of people with serious illnesses, and about making the people who choose to use this type of medicine not criminals.

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