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February 19, 2024

After helping launch CT’s largest cannabis grow facility, Rino Ferrarese spearheads startup micro-cultivator

HBJ PHOTO | SKYLER FRAZER Rino Ferrarese in the Portland cannabis grow facility he oversees as the manager of Affinity Grow.
Rino Ferrarese
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Rino Ferrarese’s cannabis career has come full circle — literally.

Perhaps one of the most influential executives in the short history of Connecticut’s legal marijuana industry, Ferrarese co-founded Connecticut Pharmaceutical Solutions (CTPharma), one of the four original cannabis cultivators that served the medical market when it first launched in 2014.

After two separate sales of CTPharma, including most recently in 2021 to Chicago-based Verano Holdings Corp. for an undisclosed sum, Ferrarese left the company last year.

Now, the 53-year-old cannabis entrepreneur is helping lead a new startup in familiar territory. He’s the manager of Affinity Grow, an equity joint venture micro-cultivator business launched by Affinity Health & Wellness, a local cannabis company that also operates dispensaries in New Haven and Bridgeport.

Affinity Grow is the state’s newest marijuana producer and first active micro-cultivator that operates out of an 18,000-square-foot property in Portland, at 47 Lower Main St.

It’s the same location where CTPharma was founded about a decade ago, before the company relocated to a larger complex in Rocky Hill.

Verano Holdings in 2022 sold the Portland facility, which has six flower rooms and lab space for extraction processes, to Affinity for about $4 million.

“Here we are 10 years later and I’m sitting in the building where it all started,” Ferrarese said.

Rino Ferrarese co-founded Connecticut Pharmaceutical Solutions, one of the four original cannabis cultivators that served the medical market when it first launched in 2014.

As a micro-cultivator, Affinity Grow is authorized to operate up to 10,000 square feet of grow space; a regular cultivation license in Connecticut requires a minimum of 15,000 square feet of grow space.

Affinity Grow, which has 30 employees, made its first product delivery in October, Ferrarese said, and now sells to all of Connecticut’s more than two dozen cannabis dispensaries.

Glenn Noffsinger, of New Haven, is the company’s qualified social equity partner, which means he owns at least 50% of the cultivation business. Ferrarese also has an equity stake in Affinity Grow.

The company is a welcomed addition to the state’s legal cannabis industry, which has been facing a product shortage that was exacerbated by increased demand during the holiday season, from Thanksgiving to New Year’s.

Medical marijuana patients have tried to raise awareness in recent months that certain products they use as treatments haven’t been as readily available as they were prior to the launch of Connecticut’s recreational market in January 2023.

The state Department of Consumer Protection (DCP) said it’s “aware of a limited variety of certain products, and is continuing to monitor the situation.”

“As a new agricultural industry, there are natural fluctuations in supply and demand,” said Kaitlyn Krasselt, a DCP spokesperson.

Cannabis roots

Before getting into the cannabis industry, Ferrarese worked at East Hampton-based American Distilling, a botanical extractor of witch hazel for use in soaps, cleansers and other cosmetic and cleaning products. That’s where he met Tom Schultz, a lawyer and investment banker who oversaw American Distilling’s merger with E. Dickinson & Company.

The two would eventually strike up a business relationship and co-founded CTPharma in 2013. Schultz served as CEO, and Ferrarese was chief operating officer. Five years later, in 2018, the partners sold their business to New York investment firm Tuatara Capital L.P. for an undisclosed sum, but stayed on with the company.

With its private equity backing, CTPharma relocated in 2020 from Portland to a more than 200,000-square-foot facility in Rocky Hill. At the time, it was one of the largest cannabis grow operations in the country, and the largest in Connecticut.

“(Capital L.P.) really had a lot of confidence they were the visionaries for growth, and got behind me and Tom Schultz, who was really the brains of the operation,” Ferrarese said.

Schultz died unexpectedly in late 2020 from injuries he sustained in a bicycle accident; Ferrarese took over as the company’s top executive.

In 2021, shortly after the state legalized recreational marijuana, Verano Holdings purchased CTPharma and two other Connecticut dispensaries, giving it a foothold in the state ahead of the adult-use industry’s launch. Ferrarese stayed on with Verano as an executive vice president until early last year, when he left to join Affinity in a full-time capacity.

Affinity Grow

While he now oversees Affinity Grow’s cultivation operations, Ferrarese said he’s actually been tied to the company for several years.

Ray Pantalena is the founder and CEO of Affinity Health & Wellness, the parent company of Affinity Grow.

When Pantalena, a longtime pharmacist, was looking to get into the state’s medical marijuana industry six or seven years ago, he tapped Ferrarese, who was still working at CTPharma at the time, for help with the paperwork and application process. Affinity Health & Wellness was awarded a medical marijuana dispensary license in 2018, and soon after opened its first retail location in New Haven.

Ferrarese, who said he’s worked “with a bunch of operators across the country to win licenses,” declined any consulting fee from Pantalena, but did get a small equity stake in the company. Pantalena said he turned to Ferrarese again for his expertise in the cultivation business.

“He’s a tremendous wealth of knowledge — a nationally known guy, and people call him for all sorts of insight and advice,” Pantalena said.

Ferrarese said there are some major differences between a large-scale grow facility and a micro-cultivator. He said he likes being able to know every employees’ name and their families, something that comes with a smaller business. He’s also much more hands-on in his current role than he was as an executive at Verano.

But the Rocky Hill facility he helped build at CTPharma is massive and geared toward innovation and experimentation, which won’t be easy to replicate.

Affinity Grow hired cannabis industry veteran Stephen Markle as its lab director in 2023, to help spearhead some of those efforts.

Supplying CT

Pantalena said he hasn’t seen product shortages at the two dispensaries he operates in Bridgeport and New Haven. Any supply issues at other Connecticut dispensaries will lessen as more growers begin producing products, he said.

Since the adult-use market launched in January 2023, the number of dispensaries in the state has almost doubled, while just a few new growers have opened.

However, there is a backlog of cultivation facilities trying to get online.

Krasselt, the DCP spokesperson, said her agency is “working closely” with the 11 cultivators and five micro-cultivators that have received provisional licenses, but haven’t yet become operational.

“There is a significant pipeline of cultivation facilities that we expect will surpass retail demands in the state. Additional cultivation will alleviate concerns about product availability,” Krasselt said.

Krasselt said DCP has no indication that the state’s only testing lab, Northeast Laboratories in Willimantic, is backed up with product testing. The state used to have two cannabis testing facilities until the closure of AltaSci Laboratories in March 2023.

“The lab has not indicated to Drug Control that they are behind or overburdened on product testing. The time required for lab testing does not seem to be the reason for a lack of product variety,” Krasselt said.

She added that DCP continues to “monitor supply and demand data as it becomes available to us.”

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