Marijuana dispensaries look to curb crime

Sarah Bruley, Yale Daily News

When licensed marijuana dispensaries began opening in August, Connecticut patients were optimistic they could legally access medical marijuana. But state officials say new laws have not significantly curbed illegal use of the drug in recent months.

Medical marijuana was legalized in Connecticut in 2012 to open up more treatment options for patients with conditions like glaucoma, multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease. State leaders signed the legislation in hopes of providing a legal and regulated option for patients who were already self-medicating with cannabis. However, while state police officials have just started monitoring the effects of the dispensaries on illegal drug use, many say the new laws and dispensaries have not significantly changed consumer drug habits.

“It would stand to reason that if people are going to acquire marijuana, and now they have a legal means, then it would decrease the number of illegal marijuana users,” New Haven Police Department spokesperson David Hartman said. “There’s no reason for people with a prescription to get it illegally — that’s if the system works.”

Still, Hartman said that not enough time has passed for police to make accurate predictions regarding the dispensaries’ impacts on illegal marijuana use in New Haven.

Hartman added that, when compared to illegal use of other drugs like narcotics, marijuana use has generally provided fewer problems for the city. He noted that, instead, New Haven has seen a recent surge in use of illegal pain medications.

In Branford, which houses the dispensary closest to the Elm City, police officers are starting to monitor the effects of the dispensaries on illegal drug use. But because the dispensary has only recently opened its doors, Branford police also say making predictions about its effects on illegal drug use remains difficult.

“It seems fairly obvious that a medical marijuana law would allow patients to be free of arrest and prosecution,” said Americans for Safe Access media specialist Kris Hermes. “Why wouldn’t patients avail themselves of that protection?”

While the six dispensaries were opened in the state to offer easier access to the drug, patients still face barriers to using cannabis legally.

Medical marijuana from a dispensary — which is not covered by health insurance — can be more expensive than buying it from the street, said Brett Sicklick, director of operations at a South Windsor dispensary called Prime Wellness. He added that, within four to six months, prices would decrease and become more competitive with street prices.

“There’s a threshold when it comes to price,” Sicklick said, adding that more competitive prices would give more patients access to the treatment.

According to Sicklick, the dispensaries have not generated a dramatic drop in illegal marijuana use. He said that while Connecticut has over 2,300 registered medical marijuana patients, there are likely tens of thousands of unregistered patients who could benefit from the program, but have limited access to the treatment.

High prices are not the only obstacle to patients legally purchasing medical marijuana. Those who are not driven to the illicit market by high prices may still face difficulties accessing the dispensaries, Hermes said. He added that patients can legally grow their own marijuana in Connecticut — the most inexpensive and easiest way to access marijuana. “If there’s inadequate access to medical marijuana, either through a dispensary or delivery service, then patients will be forced to go to the illicit market,” Hermes said.

New Haven County is home to largest proportion of patients certified to use medical marijuana legally in the state, with 706 patients as of Sept. 9. At 591 certified patients, Fairfield County has the second highest number.