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May 1, 2023

CT lawmakers consider allowing off-site cannabis sales at events, including concerts

PHOTO | CONTRIBUTED Customers visit Verano’s Zen Leaf dispensary in Meriden.

Cannabis retailers could soon have the ability to sell products at marijuana-centric events and festivals, much like breweries across the state have been doing for years.

As the Connecticut General Assembly nears the finish line of the 2023 session, legislators are considering a number of bills that would complement, or change parts of, the state’s 2021 cannabis legalization law.

One bill under consideration — H.B. 6699 — would, among other things, establish off-site event permits for adult-use cannabis retailers.

The bill was introduced and passed by the General Law Committee and is awaiting action by the House of Representatives. While it’s not clear if the proposal will gain final approval, it would pave the way for cannabis dispensaries to have a presence at concerts, events and industry gatherings.

Currently, adult-use cannabis can only be sold at one of the state’s 13 licensed brick-and-mortar dispensaries. The 2021 recreational law also allows for delivery businesses to transport cannabis products from dispensaries to consumers, but no such company has opened yet.

“It’s a pretty cool license type when you think about the parity between cannabis and alcohol,” said DeVaughn Ward, senior legislative counsel for the Marijuana Policy Project, a national organization that played a key role in Connecticut’s legalization of adult-use marijuana. “We allow alcohol sales at a ton of events, and breweries hold outdoor events with outdoor entertainment and food vendors.”

How it would work

While the prospect of off-site cannabis sales might be appealing to the state’s nascent recreational industry — which produced $21.7 million in retail sales during the three months since its Jan. 7 launch — it would come with many restrictions.

State Rep. Mike D’Agostino (D-Hamden), who chairs the General Law Committee, said the bill would allow the state Department of Consumer Protection to issue off-site event permits to licensed retailers or hybrid retailers to sell cannabis products to consumers at an in-state event.

Each $500 permit would be effective for up to three consecutive days, and dispensaries can’t receive more than four off-site event permits during one calendar year.

Cannabis retailers would also need municipal approvals, and be restricted from operating in areas where cannabis sales aren’t permitted. In terms of consumption, state law currently prohibits cannabis use in state parks and beaches.

Applicants must also confirm that at least 90% of event attendees are “reasonably expected” to be 21 years of age or older.

Another potential roadblock: event organizers would be restricted from serving both alcohol or cannabis — they’d have to choose one or the other.

“You can’t sell alcohol where you sell cannabis, so a locality will have to determine whether they want alcohol sales at that event, or do they want cannabis sales?” D’Agostino said.

Ward said the proposal isn’t unique to Connecticut. California, Colorado and Michigan also allow cannabis sales at off-site events. He said the municipal input is key to Connecticut’s bill.

“It has a nice local component to give municipalities say-so on whether or not these events can take place in their town, to make sure the town is notified and has the proper guardrails and restrictions in place,” Ward said.

'Strong sense of community'

While some West Coast states allow off-site cannabis sales, the proposal in Connecticut would be “new and innovative” in the Northeast, said Michelle Bodian, a partner at Vincente LLP, who has a leading role in the law firm’s Northeast cannabis practice.

“In a number of states we are making progress towards treating cannabis like alcohol, like selling wine and other types of drinks at a farmers market or one-time event,” Bodian said. “It’s about treating them similarly — now applying it to cannabis without completely reinventing the wheel when it comes to off-site sales.”

Bodian said she thinks the state would have to include further language making it clear whether or not on-site consumption is allowed at an event.

Unsurprisingly, adult-use retailers including Verano Holdings support off-site cannabis sales.

Verano is a Chicago-based multistate operator that has a major grow facility in Rocky Hill and two Zen Leaf dispensaries in Connecticut, in Meriden and Waterbury.

Construction is underway on another Zen Leaf dispensary on the Berlin Turnpike in Newington — in the former Bonefish Grill restaurant building — and Verano received approval last month to open a retail location in a former Stratford bank branch.

Verano Holdings Executive Vice President of Marketing David Spreckman said “allowing sales of cannabis at specific events would increase access to safe and regulated products; provide educational and engagement opportunities for new consumers; increase revenue for cannabis operators, the state and local municipalities; and combat the illicit market by further normalizing cannabis in mainstream society.”

He added: “Historically, cannabis culture invokes a strong sense of community, and the thoughtful incorporation of cannabis into cultural events such as concerts, festivals or comedy shows could serve as a natural complement by elevating these experiences for both new and veteran cannabis consumers alike.”

As Connecticut gets more comfortable with its adult-use marijuana market, adjustments to the law that help destigmatize cannabis use are important, Ward said.

“Folks in the legacy cannabis community have gathered for decades and been able to consume together in spaces,” Ward said. “As we make policy decisions to try and shift what was once an illegal market into a regulated legal market, I think license types that speak to the reality of what cannabis consumers want is a great thing.”

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