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Entrepreneurs See Budding Business In Medical Pot

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Marijuana Cigarette (David McNew/Getty Images)

Marijuana Cigarette (David McNew/Getty Images)

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BY BRIGITTE RUTHMAN, Republican-American

BRIDGEPORT, Conn. (AP) _ It’s a business opportunity Joe Palmieri couldn’t pass up when the state approved legislation allowing the cultivation and use of marijuana for medicinal purposes.

Palmieri, a third generation nurseryman from Easton, had already launched a successful hazardous waste tank removal business at the age of 24.

Now 42, Palmieri is in line to apply for one of up to 10 licenses the state plans to issue under a unique set of the most stringent medical marijuana regulations in the country.

Eventually, he said, he plans to hire up to 10 people to help grow and harvest 1,000 pounds of the plants annually in hydroponic greenhouse “pods” inside a Bridgeport warehouse he bought specifically for the purpose.

The first of several 20 foot by 8 foot pods of his own design will be shipped from Colorado, where Palmieri has been testing his growing operation to be “light switch ready.” Details were worked out with his partner, a friend from his Fairfield High School Class of 1989 who is a cannabis grower there.

It has been illegal to grow marijuana since a federal law banned it in 1937. In Connecticut, possession of more than four ounces or a growing operation carries the possibility of seven years in prison and a $25,000 fine.

But demand is growing for natural and alternative remedies, and states are responding. Currently, 16 states and the District of Columbia have laws authorizing the use of medical marijuana. In Connecticut, 350 individuals suffering from one or more of 11 ailments outlined in the new law have been issued registration cards enabling them to buy marijuana through licensed pharmaceutical dispensaries. Another 200 have applied.

As outlined in regulations developed following testimony to the Department of Consumer Protection last month, marijuana would be sold in multiple forms at dispensaries by a licensed pharmacist. Registration card holders suffering from AIDS, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy and glaucoma would be identified and tracked, as well as the prescriber and caregiver.

Marijuana has the ability to stop spasms, nausea, reduce chronic pain and pressure on the eyes, said Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the Washington D.C.-based National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana laws, which seeks to legalize marijuana.

Connecticut is the first state to treat marijuana as a pharmaceutical.

The 75 pages of regulations drafted by Department of Consumer Protection lawyers have gone to the legislature’s Regulations Review Committee, for final approval this summer. Applications for growing the first indoor crops will be considered this fall. The Department of Consumer Protection, which regulates drugs and cosmetics, will oversee distribution and cultivation systems.

“We have the basic structure of how it will be produced and distributed and who qualifies,” agency commissioner William Rubenstein said. “We were asked to create a regulatory structure to make sure it is made available without theft, abuse, or diversion.”Between 10 and 24 people have expressed an interest in growing the crop indoors on a large scale, though none are as ready as Palmieri.

In Waterbury, urban farmer Greg Wershoven, owner of Mountaintop Mushrooms, also is vying for a permit. His plan is to turn some of his basement mushroom operation into a cloning room where cuttings would take root, then move them to 36,000 square feet of indoor growing space. He even plans to hire a chef to include the cannabis in edible products _ not brownies _ for patients who can’t or don’t want to smoke marijuana to gain its medicinal benefits.

“We have a grow team,” said Wershoven, who launched his mushroom-growing operation on Chase River Road five years ago. “We could convert this building but we are looking at another building on the Watertown line because we see this as an expansion possibility.”

Wershoven said he expects to invest more than $175,000 before being assured a permit to grow. Granted a permit, he said he would only need 14 days to get his first crop going and could harvest his first crop 24 weeks later.

The demand for cannabis, Wershoven said, will depend on supply and demand and whether the public’s perception of marijuana as an illegal drug will change. The risk is that the supply would be greater than demand, as happened in Colorado where hundreds of growers are licensed. “Some people still perceive marijuana as a horrible illegal drug and they can’t see it as a drug that can help people,” he said.

Growing marijuana is no get rich quick scheme, advocate St. Pierre said. “It will take moxie,” he said. “And it’s not that easy to grow. It likes a tropical environment and requires a lot of botanical skills and pesticides and fertilizer which aren’t popular.”

Palmieri said he also will need to post a $2 million bond that won’t be forgiven until he’s successfully produced a crop for five years.

He’ll also need to overcome other hurdles related to insurance, IRS deductions, and banking, “all of which risk violating federal law,” St. Pierre said.

Palmieri, who said he hasn’t smoked pot since high school, said he is ready to meet the rigorous standards, and improve Bridgeport’s economy by increasing its tax base.
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Information from: Republican-American, http://www.rep-am.com

(© Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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