Medical marijuana

Medical marijuana: Big business for CT (April 24, 2012)

Medical marijuana looks to be coming soon to Connecticut, and when it does it's going to be big business.

We're talking tens of millions of dollars, covering everything from direct medical pot sales to hydroponic equipment and grow lights; from advertising in newspapers, magazines, TV and on the Web, to fertilizers and other mundane garden stuff.

"There are 200,000 to 300,000 patients [who might buy medical marijuana with a doctor's recommendation], probably more, in just the state of Connecticut alone," explains David Kimmel, president of Ledyard-based Vintage Foods Ltd. (Those numbers are far larger than the current state of the medical marijuana market in Rhode Island, for example, where only a few thousand people are classified as legally able to use pot for their illnesses.)

Kimmel is hoping his company will be one of those selected to run a pot-growing operation in Connecticut, assuming this state's lawmakers agree to legalize that sort of thing. "That will take a pretty significant spend," he says of the cost of creating a pot-growing facility. "At least $1.5 million to $2 million to do it right."

But that could be a drop in the bucket when you consider what sort of money is at stake. "There are significant numbers involved in this," says Kimmel, who also insists his first priority isn't profit but the patients in need of pain relief from a natural product like marijuana.

You hear that same approach from almost everyone pushing for medical marijuana, that it's about patients, not profits. But everyone knows the profits could be huge.

By one market estimate, medical marijuana could generate $9 billion in economic activity over the next five years in California, Colorado and the other 14 states that have already legalized medical pot. According to the Wall Street Journal, Scotts Miracle-Gro is planning to target sales to medical marijuana growers.

And if you still have any doubts about the big-business aspect of all this, consider the behind-the-scenes lobbying going on right now around a medical-marijuana bill that's wending its way through Connecticut's General Assembly.

Companies from Colorado and New York have hired Connecticut lobbyists to try and mold the legislative landscape to their liking.

Optometrists from inside Connecticut are pushing to be given the right to recommend pot as a treatment for glaucoma if medical marijuana is legalized. And they want it even though many ophthalmologists and optometrists doubt pot as an effective glaucoma treatment.

"There's a lot of pressure right now to provide more flexibility in the way [Connecticut's proposed medical marijuana] programs would be run to provide more business opportunities," says Michael Lawlor, Gov. Dannel Malloy's top criminal justice advisor. "We're resisting that," he adds.

A bill to create a very limited, state-regulated system for growing weed and distributing it through pharmacies to patients with medical recommendations for its use is a hot item in this year's General Assembly. Another key legislative panel put its stamp of approval on the measure Friday. The vote by the Finance Committee was a lopsided 36-15, the kind of numbers that bode well for final approval before lawmakers adjourn next month.

The legislature actually passed a different version of a medical pot bill back in 2007, only to have it vetoed by Republican governor at the time,M. Jodi Rell.

This time around, Malloy's Democratic administration supports the concept and the bill's advocates believe this is the year it will win passage through the legislature with bipartisan backing.

And that's drawing interest from all over.

Erik Williams, Connecticut representative for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), says he gets calls almost every day from groups and businesses looking to find a way into the Connecticut marijuana market.

Similar inquiries are deluging Aaron Romano, a Bloomfield lawyer who is part of NORML's national legal team. "I've received pretty much a flood of calls," he says.

Peter Smith, a former state lawmaker turned lobbyist, is working the bill for a New York-based operation called MediGrade. "I think they're looking to participate in it, with a growing-distribution operation," Smith says.

According to Smith, his clients are folks looking to make a "significant investment" in creating the most viable, insulated-from-federal-interference form of a medical marijuana system possible. The system they want is based on a "medical model" involving very controlled growing programs with distribution through pharmacies just like any other prescription medication, Smith says.

Federal interference is a big issue for all would-be marijuana investors. "The problem is there are significant risks involved," Smith points out. Risks such as the feds coming in, as they've done to several big West Coast medical pot dispensaries lately, and shutting you down.