With more patients getting certified for medical marijuana use every day and the numbers expected to climb, the state on Tuesday awarded four licenses for marijuana-growing facilities, instead of the three it had planned.
One of the licenses went to a Westport man, David Lipton, whose Fairfield-based business will grow the marijuana at a site in West Haven. Of the 16 applications filed from across the state, also chosen were sites in Portland, Simsbury and Watertown.
A crowd of state officials, pot producers and news media gathered in a cavernous former manufacturing plant in West Haven, which soon will be filled with growing cannabis, to announce the four companies chosen.
"The applications were voluminous, each containing 700 to more than 1,000 pages and provided detailed information about the applicants' financial stability, their relevant experience, their location and site plan, their production, safety, business and marketing protocols," said Consumer Protection Commissioner William M. Rubenstein, who is overseeing the process of legalizing the marijuana business in the state.
Each application was scored on nine categories. Two companies, Advanced Grow Labs, based in Fairfield and owned by Lipton, and Greenwich-based Curaleaf, tied for third place, with 2,230 points. Both were granted licenses.
Curaleaf, run by Robert Birnbaum, 60, of Greenwich, will occupy a former industrial building in Simsbury.
"There's work to be done," said Birnbaum, a financial expert who is also president of the Greenwich Reform Synagogue. "But we have invested a lot in getting the building ready. The idea is, what the state is requiring of us, is that we get in production within six months of getting the license. We would like to get in production within four months."
Birnbaum said over time, he anticipates more medical cannabis patients will choose forms besides smoking to ingest the active ingredients, including edibles and vapors, to relieve the symptoms of cancer, post-traumatic stress and other ailments.
Lipton's Advanced Grow Labs will move into the vacant former manufacturing building at 400 Frontage Road in West Haven, where Gov. Dannel P. Malloy joined Rubenstein to announce the first state-sanctioned marijuana crops will be ready by the summer.
"Some people might say what's taking so long?" Malloy said of implementation of the law, which was passed in 2012. "I wanted to make sure we had specific safeguards, so that we don't go down the same path some other states have, which would essentially legalize marijuana for anyone who can find the right doctor for the right prescription."
The proposal by Theraplant, whose CEO is Ethan Ruby, to convert a former Watertown industrial building into a large-scale marijuana-cultivation operation came in first place.
"It's a humongous responsibility and we feel very privileged to be trusted with this by the state of Connecticut," said Ruby, 38, who has been wheelchair-bound "in constant pain" following an auto crash and spinal cord injury 12 years ago. "I think we can show that this industry, done responsibly can help a lot of people. I would love to bring the relief I have found in this palliative medicine to other people."
Second place was awarded to CT Pharmaceutical Solutions, of East Hampton, whose president, Thomas Schultz, intends to expand his experience running the largest distributor of witch hazel in the world to leading a grow facility in Portland on the eastern side of the state.
With 23,000 feet of chilly, empty space behind them and the principals of the four winning proposals standing by, Rubenstein and Malloy said Connecticut's medical cannabis program will set the national standard for security and medical efficacy.
Marijuana will be treated like other prescription drugs in the state, with tight security in its growth and distribution, and patients who are thoroughly screened by their doctors, Malloy said.
At the time proposals were solicited last year, about 900 patients had signed up. Now there are almost 1,700.
"We see the patient need and demand starting to accelerate," Rubenstein said. "We thought that four was really the best number at this point to make sure we have a reliable and steady stream of supply to meet demand."
The growing facilities, which are subject to anti-trust rules barring collusion on prices, will eventually spar for business supplying the five planned dispensaries in the state that will be run by licensed pharmacists.
The announcements culminated a 11/2-year process of creating regulations and reviewing proposals. Patients with ailments including cancer, Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis, HIV/AIDS, Crohn's disease and epilepsy are eligible, if recommended by their doctors. Additional conditions could be added to the list over time.
"These patients deserve compassion, not arrest," Malloy said. "They deserve understanding and relief, not fines and a criminal record. And they deserve a treatment that is safe."
The governor said Connecticut's medical use of marijuana should not start a debate on legalizing the drug for recreational use among adults, as approved in Colorado and Washington.
It will be about two months before the state rules on the 21 proposals for dispensary licenses.
While the four growers are positioned in the state's four corners, it will be more important to spread dispensary locations evenly to serve patients and their caregivers who will be allowed to purchase marijuana.
Patients have been allowed to possess marijuana since October 2012, but the sale is illegal until the producers get their first crops to market.
Finishing 15th among the 16 proposals was Palmieri Farms of Bridgeport, whose owner, Joseph Palmieri Jr., said he was saddened but not discouraged.
"It is a disappointment but it gives me the fuel in the engine to go forward and be on top next time," Palmieri said, stressing that if the program is expanded, he will again seek a license.