Processing Your Payment

Please do not leave this page until complete. This can take a few moments.

June 9, 2022

Up In Smoke: Rise and fall of Hamden High Bazaar spotlights pitfalls, promise of state’s cannabis industry

Ginny Monk / Kelly Crain, of Middletown, Aldo Cucciniello, of Hamden, and Joshua Frazer, of East Hartford sit in front of the state Capitol on Tuesday, March 22, 2022. The three were part of a protest against a bill that would ban cannabis gifting in Connecticut. Crain and Frazer are medical marijuana patients and said they've needed to get their medicine as gifts from friends or family members at times when their symptoms were particularly bad.

As a close-in suburb of New Haven, Hamden is known for its relatively affordable homes, miles of shopping plazas and high property taxes.

But as a hub of cannabis counterculture? Er, not until recently.

Starting last July, several commercial properties in Hamden played host to a series of events dubbed “High Bazaars & Counter Culture Exhibitions.” For a $20 ticket, attendees could listen to local bands, talk to entrepreneurs about getting into the cannabis business — and receive “gifts” of the product itself, ranging from tinctures and smokable buds to THC-infused edibles.

The counterculture aspect of the event was evident in the spray-painted signage, tie-dyed decor and display of ornate glass bongs from Ledyard’s Adaptation Glassworks. Products available for gifting at one January High Bazaar, according to a news report, included Thirsty Pup THC-infused apple juice, The Wizard edibles and Lava Cake bud, packaged in a baggie labeled by hand with a marker.

“They’ve definitely found a way to operate under the current law,” Hamden Mayor Lauren Garrett said in an interview on WFSB aired Jan. 20. “I think that they’ve chosen Hamden because they do feel safe here.”

By February, Hamden’s cannabis “private event” had attracted a lot of attention and coverage from the news media. Within days of a WFSB broadcast, the town of Hamden had applied for an injunction to stop the festivities, citing concerns about fire safety and the lack of proper permits at the High Bazaar location at 18 Crest Way.

Subsequent High Bazaars planned for 295 Treadwell St. were canceled after organizers got the thumbs-down from town officials, again citing the event’s lack of permits.

By March, a bill to restrict cannabis gifting had been drafted in the state legislature and began making its way through committees. On the last day of the session, the Senate passed the bill in a package of amendments to the state’s cannabis regulations.

“What this bill does is it simply tightens and clarifies a lot of the regulations,” said Sen. James Maroney (D-Milford), in debate on the bill on May 4. “It’s modifying existing law to clarify some situations as we saw with the gifting loophole.”

“That is a fix that I think should be embraced by everyone,” said state Sen. Kevin Witkos (R-Canton). He also raised concerns about dinner events across the state where diners sit down to dishes infused with cannabis, and was assured any such event requiring a paid ticket was prohibited under the law.

Witkos, the only state Republican to vote to legalize recreational marijuana use in 2021, said of the bill, “It’s closing a loophole in our law that has been exploited by others to be allowed to sell in an unregulated market a regulated product.”

Under the new rules, any kind of gifting that is not between those “with an established social relationship” is punishable by fines of up to $1,000 at both the local and state levels, along with additional fines and scrutiny from state tax officials.

Testifying against the bill in earlier hearings were an array of cannabis activists and consumers seeking an alternative to expensive and rule-bound legal weed.

“People who are willing and able to gift cannabis to others are providing a critical community service and do not deserve to be criminalized or penalized for doing a good deed to help people in their community,” Christina E. Capitan, a Windsor resident and patient advocate at the Cannabis Patient Resource Centers of Connecticut, said in written testimony.

Gifting boom signals demand

The rise and fall of Hamden’s High Bazaar spotlights both a loophole in the state’s long-debated regulatory regime for cannabis – and the potential of the nascent industry, said Benjamin Pomerantz, partner at New Haven law firm Carmody Torrance Sandak & Hennessey.

As lead of the firm’s cannabis practice group, Pomerantz works with businesses seeking to enter the state’s industry and keep abreast of regulatory changes.

Connecticut has been comprehensive in its attempts to regulate cannabis sales, Pomerantz said, but every new industry has its growing pains and the existence of the “gifting loophole” was one of them. Highly organized and commercialized gifting events like the High Bazaar were likely to attract the attention of regulators, he added.

“I think one of the things that the lawmakers and municipalities are saying is these are sort of corporate enterprises. And if you’re going to run some sort of corporate enterprise or undertaking that involves selling cannabis, you need to have a license,” Pomerantz said. “We need to know who you are, you need to have a license and you need to be under the state's regulatory control.”

Quality and safety standards were at issue along with revenue for the state from the cannabis industry. (The state Office of Fiscal Analysis predicts the state by 2026 will reap $55.2 million in taxes annually from the legal cannabis industry.)

Connecticut is not the only state to deal with controversy around cannabis gifting, Pomerantz noted. In Washington, D.C., cannabis gifting shops have become a major retail presence due to the city’s unique status – a federal district governed by federal bans on marijuana that has voted to approve recreational use by its citizens.

"It’s not a state – they have embraced the gifting model and even farmers markets for cannabis products because it’s legal [under city law],” Pomerantz said. As a result of the city’s hands-off policy, stores have popped up all over D.C. that offer small amounts of cannabis as a free gift with the purchase of a T-shirt, artwork or even a slice of pizza. In April, the D.C. Council voted against a crackdown on the gifting shops.

Connecticut lawmakers’ quick action on gifting is unlikely to discourage most entrepreneurs seeking a foothold in the state’s cannabis industry, Pomerantz said. “The more regulatory clarity that we have, the happier everybody is… because you know what we can and can’t do.”

Most of all, the High Bazaar and other grassroots cannabis events across the state have proven there is an eager market for the product, even in suburban areas like Hamden. The presence of a wide range of tinctures and edible products at the events also show enthusiasm for cannabis beyond just “flower,” the smokable buds and leaves of the marijuana plant.

“It’s a good thing for the cannabis industry in Connecticut, because it shows that there's a demand, it shows that there are people who want the product,” Pomerantz said. “If you can run your business properly, there is the opportunity to do well.”

As for the grassroots cannabis entrepreneurs of the Hamden High Bazaar, word was that gifting events were still happening somewhere in town in the months before the new law was passed. Entrance was by invitation only.

One likely new rule: No TV cameras allowed.

Sign up for Enews


Order a PDF