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January 1, 2023

Ready to Launch: Cannabis companies gear up for January start of recreational marijuana sales as challenges remain

PHOTO | STEVE LASCHEVER Ray Pantalena, pharmacist and principal of Affinity Health & Wellness in New Haven.

Ray Pantalena and his New Haven-based business, Affinity Health & Wellness, have spent months getting ready for the anticipated influx of customers who want to buy recreational marijuana.

Licensed hybrid retailers may begin selling cannabis products to all adults ages 21 and up starting at 10 a.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 10.

“At 10 o’clock in the morning, we are ready,” Pantalena said. “We are super-excited for the program to finally start.”

Affinity is one of just a few retailers in Greater New Haven, and nine statewide, that will be the first companies to serve recreational marijuana customers this month. However, more dispensaries will debut throughout the year as the industry finally gets off the ground.

What’s less clear is how many retailers and other types of cannabis businesses will call the Elm City, or Greater New Haven, home.

Finding real estate remains a key challenge for many cannabis entrepreneurs, experts said.

More space

Affinity opened in the summer of 2019, when it began selling medical marijuana out of its storefront at 1351 Whalley Ave.

The New Haven City Plan Commission in December approved a special permit allowing the business to also serve the adult-use market.

In order to sell recreational marijuana too, Pantalena said Affinity’s space needed renovations. Its retail location has been remodeled in recent months to increase its check-in and registration area from two windows to five; two will be set aside for medical customers, so they aren’t crowded out by recreational users.

The checkout area now has seven stations, up from three, to help accommodate more customers.

Gabbi Albert, general manager at Affinity Health & Wellness in New Haven, with a CTPharma display tool used to show customers about the range of available cannabis-related products.

Staffing is up too. The business is hiring 20 new workers, mostly full time, with all slated to be in place and fully trained for the Jan. 10 recreational launch.

The medical side continues to have full inventory. For the adult-use side, customers can expect to be able to buy select flowers, pre-rolls, edibles and vapes, according to Pantalena.

Customers shouldn’t expect a traditional store atmosphere. There won’t be aisles of products to browse and then bring to the checkout.

“There won’t be any product or jars out — it won’t be like a bakery where you can see the cookies in jars,” Pantalena said, with a chuckle.

The recreational products at Affinity will be in sealed packages. Recreational customers should pre-order online, and then their purchases will be ready for pickup. The business is already taking pre-orders, but Pantalena said there may be recreational customers who just show up.

Expansion ahead

Affinity plans to expand beyond its current spot, with new satellite locations to open in 2023, Pantalena said.

He declined to provide further details on those expansion plans, but new locations will be spread throughout the state, to be closer to more potential customers.

Pantalena anticipates the recreational marijuana industry will grow quickly in Connecticut.

“It is going to explode,” Pantalena said. “We’ll see more retail as people go through zoning, throughout 2023. You’ll start to see it all over the state.”

Interest in the market is high statewide.

Kristina Diamond, communications and legislative program manager with the Social Equity Council (SEC), said there were 23,488 social equity applications received in the first round of the adult-use licensing lottery.

CohnReznick, a third-party reviewer hired by the SEC, reviewed 158 applications. The SEC approved 87 applications as of mid-December, Diamond said.

Laura Brown, executive director with the New Haven City Plan department, said in December her office had no pending cannabis-related applications.

Cathy Graves, deputy director of economic development for New Haven, reported there is only one special permit approved for retail in the city, and that is for Affinity.

However, more are interested, Graves said. She reported knowing of two other retailers that have not filed for special permits and/or confirmed a location. Additionally, one has confirmed a retail location, but has not yet filed for the special permit, Graves said.

She wouldn’t provide further details.

Kebra Smith-Bolden, a registered nurse, opened CannaHealth in 2017. Her New Haven-based business provides medical marijuana certifications to patients, in addition to cannabis-related education and workshops.

Smith-Bolden said she has been approved for a cultivation license and can have a retail location too. Her preference is to have her cultivation business in New Haven or the surrounding region.

“I am from New Haven and want it to be here, but I have had a hard time finding a suitable property,” Smith-Bolden said.

PHOTO | File image
Kebra Smith-Bolden, a registered nurse and owner of CannaHealth, is among the entrepreneurs planning to get into the recreational marijuana market.

As of late December, she was widening her search to other parts of Connecticut for her future cultivation operation.

Her planned retail dispensary will be in New Haven, she said, and her hope is that it will be open by the summer of 2023.

Smith-Bolden said she has 14 months to get her cultivation business operational, so she is looking at the first quarter of 2024 at the latest.

“The existing medical operators have had a head start,” Smith-Bolden said. “I thought it was a mistake not allowing social equity license holders to catch up.”

Some communities have been more welcoming of the industry than others, she noted.

“We are all building a business from the ground up and need support from communities, so we can be successful, create jobs and reinvest in those communities,” Smith-Bolden said.

Real estate scramble

Michelle Bodian, counsel with law firm Vicente Sederberg in its Boston office and co-chair of its hemp and cannabinoids department, represents several clients in Connecticut.

These entrepreneurs have faced several challenges in getting their businesses up and running, she said.

In addition to securing the necessary licensing and approvals, Bodian noted that many are now on the hunt for real estate.

“For the license winners, people are out there now pounding the pavement trying to find property,” Bodian said. “There is a bit of a scramble, especially on the retail side of things, given how some of the municipalities have opted out.”

For the towns and cities that are allowing marijuana sales, there are still zoning considerations, and finding available property within the appropriate zones can be challenging, Bodian added.

There are additional hurdles such as getting inspections and securing products, which can delay opening operations too, she noted.

“January 10 is going to be an important date,” Bodian said. “As we saw play out in Massachusetts and (in other states), there is a lot of excitement for the first stores. It’s important for everyone to remember — we are in this for the long run. Whether you open Jan. 10, 2023, or Jan. 10, 2024, there is going to be that consumer demand and that excitement whenever anyone is able to open up.”

Consumer demand

DCP Commissioner Michelle H. Seagull said the department is aware that many people are excited to participate in this marketplace, both as businesses and consumers.

“We encourage adults who choose to purchase and consume these products to do so responsibly once sales begin on January 10,” said Seagull, the cannabis industry's top regulator who recently announced plans to depart her role in the first quarter of 2023.

Sales will be limited to one-quarter ounce (approximately 7 grams) of cannabis flower, or its equivalent, per transaction when the market opens.

The DCP has indicated that it plans to review transaction limits as time goes by. Officials want to ensure businesses can maintain adequate supply for both medical marijuana patients and adult-use consumers.

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