New “Complex” Marijuana Law will Challenge Wilton Zoning, Police

Now that recreational use of marijuana and other cannabis products is legal in Connecticut, what will change in Wilton?

On June 22, Gov. Ned Lamont signed Senate Bill 1201, “An Act Concerning Responsible and Equitable Regulation of Adult-Use Cannabis,” adding Connecticut to the growing list of states that have legalized recreational use of marijuana and consumable cannabis products.

As of July 1, the law is now in effect. Part I of GOOD Morning Wilton‘s coverage explained what’s in the new law, including what it means for local control and local taxes. In Part II, we’re doing a deeper dive to explore how Wilton’s town officials and law enforcement are approaching it.

What, if anything, can residents expect to change? In many ways, it’s too soon to tell. The law may be in effect now, but the roll-out of numerous reforms and initiatives in the 303-page legislation will take months (if not longer), starting with a complex new system of licensing for cannabis retailers, cultivators and other related businesses.

As the details emerge, will residents favor or oppose the opening of cannabis retail stores in Wilton? Will Wilton’s zoning authority be proactive with regulations or wait to see what challenges arise? Will we see an increase in impaired driving on Wilton roads? Will legalized use by adults have a trickle-down effect to the youth in our community?

While those are just a few of the questions emerging with the new law, one thing that’s clear is that the new cannabis law will land most heavily on the laps of two municipal departments: zoning and police.

First, From the Top

Wilton’s top official, First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice, shared her cautious outlook with GMW via email from her working vacation.

“As a family-oriented community, I expect residents will approach this with caution and have concerns about the potential impact on the non-adult population,” she wrote.

The underage impact, she hypothesized, would be driven by potentially easier access to cannabis substances and generally greater exposure, including visible use by adults.

But as for right now, Vanderslice said, “The legislation is complex and will require some time to work through.”

She added, “It would have been helpful had the legislature given us more time” before the law went into effect.

She believes residents, like the town’s leaders, are still figuring out what the new law will mean.

“I haven’t heard from residents,” Vanderslice said. “I don’t expect that is because they aren’t interested. I expect it is because they, too, don’t know the full contents or the impact of the law.”

Vanderslice had just received guidance from the state of Connecticut Office of Policy and Management (OPM), summarizing areas of municipal authority over regulating the new cannabis market. (OPM provides the information and analysis used to formulate public policies at the state level, and assists municipalities in implementing new policy.)

Municipal Authority

First and foremost, the OPM guidance makes it clear that, under the law, if there is a petition by 10% of registered voters, Wilton would be required to put the matter before voters as to whether to allow or prohibit cannabis businesses to operate in Wilton.

Specifically, the new law would require Wilton, upon petition, “to hold a local referendum on whether to allow the recreational sale of marijuana or whether to allow certain types of cannabis businesses within the municipality.”

Those “types of cannabis businesses” would not only include retailers, but other entities that receive any of the various cannabis licenses by the state, such as cultivators, food and beverage manufacturers (edibles), or packaging or delivery companies.

In a referendum, the ballot could include one of the following:

  • “Shall the sale of recreational marijuana be allowed in [Wilton]?”
  • “Shall the sale of cannabis under [Specified License(s)] be allowed in [Wilton]?”
  • “Shall the sale of recreational marijuana be prohibited (No Licenses) in [Wilton]?”

Vanderslice would favor a town vote. “Wilton residents should have a voice in any decisions,” she said. One thing she’s not yet sure of is whether the Board of Selectmen independently can schedule a referendum to put the question to a town vote. “If we can, I will recommend the Board consider doing so,” Vanderslice added.

She cited examples of when Wilton voted on alcohol sales and as recently as 2017, extending the hours when liquor could be served in bars and restaurants.

Of note, Wilton would not have the authority to enact any measures that would prohibit the delivery of cannabis products to legal users in the town.

Possession, Use and Public Use

While the new law immediately legalized the possession and recreational use of cannabis by adults, and also explicitly prohibited its use at state parks, state beaches, and on state waters, there is less clarity on cannabis use in public.

The OPM guidance reminds municipalities that some aspects of the earlier cannabis law will remain in place through Sept. 30. This will give municipalities time to determine what they may wish to allow or prohibit in regard to the use of cannabis products in public.

For now, a municipality can regulate activities deemed “deleterious to public health” on property the town owns or controls, such as sidewalks, parks or municipal buildings, for example. Effective Oct. 1, municipalities can specifically prohibit use of cannabis in those public areas and charge fines to offenders.

Zoning Authority

To be clear, the state’s new law does not mandate that towns allow cannabis merchants. Municipal zoning authorities have broad latitude to amend their zoning regulations as they see fit, to prohibit cannabis businesses entirely, or to reasonably restrict their hours, signage, or locations.

GMW submitted several questions to Wilton’s top zoning officials, including Rick Tomasetti, chairman of the Planning and Zoning Commission, and Michael Wrinn, director of Wilton’s Planning and Zoning Department.

Tomasetti responded with “no comment” and “we are still working through the legislation.” Wrinn did not respond to GMW‘s request by the publication deadline.

Thus, it’s still unclear how Wilton’s zoning officials will begin to approach the new law, and whether they will take proactive steps.

But perhaps some clues can be gleaned from Wilton’s not-so-distant zoning past.

In 2014, Wilton amended its zoning regulations to allow medical marijuana dispensaries in the General Business District zones, subject to the following requirements:

  • Not located within 1,000 feet of a school, place of worship, playground or park, child daycare facility or another licensed dispensary
  • No marijuana, product packaging, display boards, pricing information or paraphernalia viewable from the outside
  • No advertisement of brand names or graphics related to marijuana or paraphernalia on exterior signage
  • A comprehensive security plan, detailing safeguards against diversion, loss or theft of marijuana products and paraphernalia

Another precedent could be seen in 2015, with public backlash in response to a smoke shop that considered opening in Wilton Center. The merchant intended to sell products and “paraphernalia” including glass “artwork” related to smoking tobacco and marijuana (but not any of those substances).

Wilton had no ordinances regarding the retail sale of such paraphernalia; there were no regulations that would prohibit a store like that from opening in town. But in response to the store’s rumored opening, numerous town residents and elected leaders, including then-State Sen. Toni Boucher and State Rep. Gail Lavielle, publicly appealed to the Planning and Zoning Commission to tighten zoning restrictions when it came to both medical marijuana and related paraphernalia.

Bob Nerney, Wilton’s town planner at the time, believed it was appropriate to proceed cautiously.

“I think the issue of [prohibiting] a paraphernalia stand-alone businesses is something you want to be careful about. I’m not aware of communities that regulate those types of businesses. There may be, but what will that then lead to though? It raises the philosophical question of when does a zoning issue evolve into a cultural issue?”

Ultimately, the business owner did not open the Wilton store as planned.

Enforcement by Wilton Police Department

Capt. Rob Cipolla of the Wilton Police Department said that understanding the new law is the WPD’s first priority.

“When we’re presented with a new [law], the first and foremost thing is to get an understanding of what the new policies and procedures will be in order to be in line with the [law].”

That includes identifying additional training or other needs in order to enforce the law “with fidelity,” Cipolla said.

In the short term, Cipolla expects a “shift in norms” that could result in more service calls to the department. Because residents aren’t accustomed to seeing cannabis use, they might be inclined to report behavior they see, especially until the rules for using cannabis in public become more clear.

“I can tell you, the way we’re viewing it right now is that [using cannabis] would be no different than someone smoking a cigarette,” Cipolla said. Anywhere cigarettes are prohibited (e.g., restaurants, public buildings, etc.), marijuana would also be prohibited.

As with alcohol, Cipolla expects the under-21 rule will take effort to enforce.

“Ultimately, the way I read the bill, it brings marijuana into the same context as our enforcement of underage drinking,” he said, adding that for citizens 21-or-over, enforcement would be more about possession limits.

But according to Cipolla, there are other potential consequences of decriminalizing marijuana that will impact law enforcement, namely for motor vehicle searches and assessing impaired driving.

In the past, if police officers detected the odor of marijuana during a traffic stop, they had probable cause to search the vehicle.

“That no longer is the case,” Cipolla said. “And that’s a big deviation from how we’ve policed prior to this act.”

While a potential increase in impaired driving is often cited as a public concern with legalized cannabis, Cipolla indicated that law enforcement’s current approach to DUI can effectively handle motorists high on cannabis.

Cipolla pointed out that, unfortunately, law enforcement is already familiar with impaired drivers whether they are under the influence of alcohol, prescription drugs like opioids, or other drugs. Although there is no breathalyzer for cannabis such as there is for alcohol, standard field sobriety tests will reveal if an individual’s ability to safely operate a motor vehicle has been compromised.

Still, in addition to new initiatives aimed at DUI prevention, the new law dedicates significant resources for training law enforcement officers to identify impaired individuals on the roads. Across the state, more police officers would be trained in Advanced Roadside Impaired Driving Enforcement (ARIDE) and certified as Drug Recognition Experts (DREs).

According to the CT Department of Transportation, there are currently only about 60 DREs in Connecticut. Wilton already has one, Sgt. Anna Tornello.

Cipolla points out that all officers are trained to assess impaired driving, but the extra training DREs receive can mean more expertise in gathering evidence post-arrest and more success in prosecuting cases.

Like Vanderslice, Cipolla lamented there was not more time to prepare for the law going into effect.

“This is a 300-page bill,” he said. “With anything, in terms of understanding and appropriate training, it’s not something that just happens overnight. We need a little more time to gain that understanding.”

Cipolla added that trying to predict what would be in the law would have been difficult, given the wide array of proposals that had been considered (and failed to pass) in the past.

“We don’t legislate the laws,” Cipolla reminds the public. “We’re just tasked with the enforcement of them.”

And By The Way, That Municipal Tax Revenue Has Strings Attached

While the 3% municipal tax on cannabis products sold in Wilton would go to the town’s general revenue, the funds may be used for limited purposes. According to the OPM, those purposes may include:

  • Streetscape improvements and other neighborhood developments in communities where cannabis retailers (and certain other business types) are located
  • Education programs or youth employment and training programs in the town
  • Services for individuals living in the town who were released from Dept. of Corrections custody, probation, or parole
  • Mental health or addiction services
  • Youth service bureaus and municipal juvenile review boards
  • Community civic engagement efforts