Jessai Flores, Illustrations Editor

Lines stretched out the door of Affinity Dispensary last Tuesday morning in anticipation of the 10 a.m. launch of legal recreational cannabis sales in the Elm City. 

A year and a half after Connecticut legalized the drug, retail sales of adult-use cannabis officially started on Jan. 10. Affinity Dispensary, New Haven’s only adult-use cannabis retailer, has served the New Haven community since 2019, dispensing cannabis exclusively for medical use. Now, Affinity is one of the nine hybrid dispensaries in the state, meaning that they can serve both the medical and the adult recreational market.

“The adult-use patient population that has been coming in so far for the last week, they’re very happy that we’re here,” said Ray Pantalena, Affinity’s owner. “They’re very encouraged that we’re here. Their experience has been nothing but exceptional.”

Retail regulations

Cannabis customers faced a range of regulations when they arrived at Affinity on Tuesday morning. 

“It was just really busy, like non-stop traffic,” Affinity employee Lyandre Boyd told the News. “I would say it was a little overwhelming at first because, you know, the first day none of us were used to it. I remember seeing close to 300 preorders.”

Customers, who must be 21 or older, can purchase up to one-quarter of an ounce of cannabis flower or its equivalent at a time. Kaitlyn Krasselt, director of communications for the Connecticut Department of Consumer Protection, or DCP, explained that this limit will protect Connecticut’s 50,000 medical marijuana patients by ensuring that demand does not outstrip supply. 

Outside of the store, adults can possess and use up to 1.5 ounces of cannabis freely and store up to 5 ounces in a locked container. Adults will also be able to grow cannabis at home for recreational use starting July 1. 

New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker and other city officials offered additional safety recommendations at a press conference on Jan. 9. 

“We anticipate more people purchasing and possessing and using marijuana,” Elicker said. “We’re not anticipating a huge, huge spike. I think we can be real that marijuana’s been accessible to many people for quite a long time.” 

Elicker emphasized the importance of keeping cannabis products away from children and not driving under the influence. New Haven Director of Health Maritza Bond encouraged cannabis users to “lock,” “label” and “limit” their purchases. Chief of Police Karl Jacobson said that the police department would also monitor increased traffic around Affinity, advising that customers not open their purchases in their cars.

Jacobson added that residents cannot bring marijuana across state lines or use it in nonsmoking areas. He said landlords can prohibit smoking or vaping on their properties, but not the use of edibles. 

Bo Sandine, public educator with the New Haven Health Department, noted that community education was the department’s “primary focus” as they prepared for the launch of retail marijuana sales. 

“We provided messaging for New Haven schools, parents and the general community,” Sandine told the News. “Led by our Health Programs team, we have educated the public via our social media platforms and outreach.” 

From medical to marketable

Medical marijuana dispensaries hoping to expand into the state’s new adult-use market also faced a bevy of regulations. 

Pantalena, a long-time New Haven resident, worked as a pharmacist before starting Affinity. After seeing many of his patients find success in treating several underlying conditions using cannabis, Pantalena became interested in medical marijuana, seeing it as “something different than a traditional pharmacy.”

Affinity’s process to become authorized as a hybrid vendor began last February. In addition to filing paperwork, becoming a hybrid dispensary required conforming to numerous safeguards put in place by the state government and the DCP. 

Vendors applying for hybrid status were also required to submit a medical preservation plan, laying out how the dispensary would ensure that its medical patients would continue to receive appropriate care. 

“We take care of the medical patients,” Pantalena said, describing the preservation plan at Affinity. “They get priority over everyone. They don’t have to wait in any lines. They don’t have to wait inside. We have dedicated people just for the medical program… we’ve tried to make every accommodation to make sure that the adult rollout would not adversely affect them.”

In converting to a hybrid dispensary, Affinity has also had to double the size of its staff from 20 to 40 and perform some remodeling, according to Pantalena. 

According to both Pantalena and Krasselt, neither Affinity nor the other hybrid dispensaries across the state have experienced supply issues or difficulty serving both the medical and recreational markets in this first week. Pantalena credited the cautious and thoughtful guidance of the DCP for the success of Affinity’s transition to a hybrid model.

Currently, the Connecticut cannabis market is served by four in-state growers who have had to expand their businesses and production facilities to serve the adult-use market. In addition to these four, the DCP is currently reviewing a number of other applications for business licenses in the cannabis market.

“While our existing producers have managed that supply chain, entirely in house in our medical market, as the adult use market ramps up, there’s a number of other businesses that will be opening that will support that supply chain,” Krasselt told the News.

Reckoning with the War on Drugs

Senate Bill 1201, which legalized adult-use cannabis, included multiple provisions to address the historically discriminatory impacts of drug criminalization. In addition to erasing certain cannabis-related convictions on people’s records, the bill aimed to support equity in the cannabis market, including a measure that gives people from marginalized communities priority access to licenses. 

The DCP created both a “social equity lottery” and a “general lottery” for licenses to grow, manufacture, transport and sell cannabis products. Each lottery pool was allocated half of the total licenses. Social equity applicants needed to have an average household income of less than 300 percent of the state median income, and they needed to reside — or have resided as a child — in an area that was disproportionately impacted by the War on Drugs, as indicated by their high conviction rates for drug-related offenses. 

Many New Haven census tracts were designated as “disproportionately impacted,” including parts of Fair Haven, Newhallville and Beaver Hills. 

Winners of the social equity lottery also have free access to a Cannabis Business Accelerator Program, led by the Hartford social enterprise nonprofit reSET and by Oaksterdam University, a cannabis college based in Oakland, California. The eight-month program, which began this month, provides coaching, technical assistance and wraparound services. 

“The Social Equity Council of Connecticut has really envisioned and allowed us to execute what we know to be best practices,” said Dale Sky Jones, president and CEO of Oaksterdam. “This industry is hella hard. It is flat ridiculous… One thing that Oaksterdam is trying to be for these participants is a lifeboat. We can help shed light on what is a confusing and difficult process.”

Jones added that the enduring stigma and legal uncertainty around the marijuana market mean that entrepreneurs face extra challenges when securing insurance, banking and other necessary services. 

Among the new state marijuana businesses that will be opening in the next year are 26 new cultivators that are working with and have received approval from the Social Equity Council, according to Krasselt. 

Over half of state revenue from retail cannabis sales will also be directed to a Social Equity and Innovation Fund, which will make investments both inside and outside of the cannabis market.

Krasselt said the Social Equity Council’s goal was to ensure “that people from those [disproportionately impacted] communities had priority access to licensure, and if they’re not interested in working in the cannabis industry, that revenue generated by the industry is directed back into those communities for business accelerator programs and community reinvestment and things like that.”

In Connecticut, cannabis is subject to state and local sales taxes, as well as a potency tax based on the product’s THC content. 

SADIE BOGRAD
Sadie Bograd covers Nonprofits and Social Services. Last year, she covered City Hall. Originally from Kentucky, she is a sophomore in Davenport College majoring in Urban Studies.
KHUAN-YU HALL
Khuan-Yu Hall covers business, unions, and the economy. He is a sophomore in Davenport, from Hartland, Vermont, studying Computer Science and Ethics, Politics, and Economics.