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Norwalk Council tackles challenging need for a cannabis ordinance

The Common Council Ordinance Committee meets Tuesday on Zoom.

NORWALK, Conn. — Connecticut has legalized cannabis. Now Norwalk Common Council members are wrestling with the details.

For one thing, if Norwalk allows retail cannabis establishments, as Council members desire, then it must designate areas where people can consume cannabis in public.

“Where do we pick? You know, do we find an island in the middle of the Sound? Where do we go, that’s not going to be a political football?” Common Council member Thomas Keegan (R-District D) said Tuesday.

Council members enacted a temporary prohibition on cannabis establishments in March. Last month, the Ordinance Committee began working on an ordinance to define the ins and outs of cannabis sale and growth; members had expected to move it to a public hearing in July, but but the draft is “not quite ready for that moment yet,” said Council member Josh Goldstein (D-At Large), who has worked with Keegan to develop it.

The draft would lift the prohibition when it is passed and corresponding zoning regulations are in place.

While there’s no “designated” place for citizens to smoke cigarettes or drink alcohol, the State law “quite literally” specifies a “place,” Goldstein said.

The drafted ordinance allows the Mayor to designate “a place and/or places as the only public location wherein public consumption of cannabis and cannabis products is permitted only through smoking, vaping, or the consumption of edibles.” The Mayor would also have the discretion to amend the locations.

Goldstein said that allows “flexibility,” but Council member David Heuvelman (D-District A) argued that the Council would be “pushing off a responsibility” and “stigmatizing cannabis by limiting it” to specific locations instead of naming the entire city as the “place,” with the same prohibitions that apply to tobacco.

Plus, whatever location is named would be “destroyed” and “stigmatized with this idea,” Heuvelman said.

A map of potential retail cannabis locations, presented by Planning and Zoning Director Steven Kleppin to the Common Council Ordinance Committee in May. The green parcels are “are technically eligible,” given separation distances from schools and other locations, he said.

“I can understand why it may feel like we’re passing the buck,” Goldstein said. “… I do think that this path does give us a level of flexibility, and gives us the ability to make decisions in a quicker timeline.”

If a specific place were named in the ordinance, then it would take months to make a change, he said.

He didn’t think it would be viable to make the entire city the “place,” for a “a number of public health, public safety and enforcement reasons.”

“We are also trying to sort of get a handle on how other municipalities are handling this. And trying to figure out from a best practices standpoint, how best to do that,” Goldstein said.

Keegan said Massachusetts has found “their biggest problem has been with DUI. And not necessarily simply smoking.”

As a retired police officer, he “tried to make things pretty simple” but, “We did have a lot of trouble with trying to come up with a place where we thought we could have the smoking of cannabis be, quote unquote, legal.”

“Scores of places” were discussed, including islands, but “every single place that was recommended it be the place designated by the city where it’s permitted, somebody had a problem with it.”

It’s not like smoking cigarettes, he said to Heuvelman.

“Smoking cigarettes has been for years and years and years legal,” Keegan said. “… It’s frowned upon because of the health issues, but it’s still legal. And cannabis has been illegal since the beginning of time…. I arrested people for possessing marijuana. I arrested people for smoking pot.”

While Norwalk must name locations, he “doubts” people will “flock there,” but “at least we’ve satisfied the statute.”

Given that Norwalk would like to “build this as an industry …we’re actually trying to do the opposite of stigmatizing it,” Goldstein said.

“The difference between cigarettes and cannabis is that cigarettes …  are a health risk if you are getting secondhand smoke. So I would personally prefer for instance, that cigarettes were entirely banned on our sidewalks as well,” Council member Nora Niedzielski-Eichner (D-At Large) said. “Cigarettes while they pose a health risk for long term exposure to secondhand smoke are not intoxicants, when you are walking by getting a secondhand smoke.  Cannabis is different…. I do not want my child walking on a sidewalk behind someone who is smoking cannabis, that is not a stigmatization.”

The draft also calls for $50 fines for violating the restrictions and a $250 fine for someone who permits the outdoor consumption of cannabis.

Goldstein said it had been a $1,000 fine for the latter, but if it’s more than $250 then violators could appeal to a hearing officer and “that can be quite onerous for the City, and can provide a significant delay.”

“The goal of legalizing cannabis is to decrease arrests and related to it. You know, we certainly don’t want to create a cottage industry of violations or tickets,” Niedzielski-Eichner said.

The draft establishes a Norwalk Cannabis Account, a bucket for revenue from the 3% sales tax on cannabis mandated in the State law.

“The State gives us a report of how much the retailers owe the City, of municipal sales tax. The City is then responsible for the invoicing and collection of those monies,” Goldstein said.

The money would go toward:

  • Streetscape improvements and other neighborhood developments in communities where cannabis retailers, hybrid retailers or micro-cultivators are located.
  • Education programs or youth employment and training programs in the municipality.
  • Services for individuals living in the municipality who were released from department of corrections custody, probation, or parole.
  • Mental health or addiction services; youth service bureaus and municipal juvenile review boards.
  • Community civic engagement efforts.

 

Heuvelman asked if the Council might attempt to direct the funds by assigning percentages for the beneficiaries.

“One possibility is the Council each year picks a priority, and they pick the 50% of the funds go to ‘x,’” Council President Tom Livingston (D-District E) said.

Applicants would go through the Community Services Department, which would deliver regular reports to the Council.

Council member Dominique Johnson (D-At Large) focused on equity, saying that the draft’s definition of “discrimination” isn’t as “up to date” as other sections of the City code.

“We want to be sure that in particular, Black and brown residents in Norwalk, will be treated just as everyone else, even though that’s not what’s happened with cannabis up to this point,” she said.

“The definition of equity is from the state statute,” Goldstein said. It’s not there to create protected classes.

The fund is designed to “try and promote programs and resources that try and remedy a lot of the issues that came to light as a result of the war on drugs,” he said. “So we’re on the same page. I think thematically and goal wise.”

Furthering the point, Johnson said “we also know that when cannabis becomes legalized recreationally, certain groups of people actually use it more.” She worried that they may not know the specific legalities and inadvertently violate the law.

Goldstein spoke of a “big public communication effort.”

Heuvelman said micro cultivation is a “huge opportunity” for Norwalk.

“One of the things that makes it challenging is, I believe is a minimum of 15,000 square feet that you have to have, because there needs to be a sufficient grow space,” Goldstein said. “There are several sites in Norwalk that could probably fit that bill. I’m sure there are people who are interested in doing that kind of business in Norwalk.  That application, were it to go through the zoning permitting process, would not be like retail, it would be like industrial. It’d be like if someone was building a plant, you know, like, like a factory.”

17 comments

Lindsay June 23, 2022 at 8:55 am

It seems like the Common Council needs a quick refresher.

Current Schedule I Controlled Substances as of June 2022:
•Marijuana (cannabis)
•Heroin
•LSD
•Peyote
•Methaqualone
•MDMA

“Schedule I substances have no currently accepted medical use in the United States, a lack of accepted safety for use under medical supervision, and a high potential for abuse.”

“Drugs and other substances that are considered controlled substances under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) are divided into five schedules. An updated and complete list of the schedules is published annually in Title 21 Code of Federal Regulations (C.F.R.) §§1308.11 through 1308.15. Substances are placed in their respective schedules based on whether they have a currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States, their relative abuse potential, and likelihood of causing dependence when abused.”

Think of our youth here in Norwalk if not anyone else.

Reference:
https://www.deadiversion.usdoj.gov/schedules/

matthew merluzzi June 23, 2022 at 9:50 am

Why not have Amsterdam style “coffee shop” space somewhere in SoNo or the Wall Street area. That segregates the smokers and their smoke from the rest of the public, while creating a social gathering point for those people who share the interest. I believe this solution is the most civilized. This place should be attached to one of the dispensaries or at least very close to it.

If that’s not possible I’d suggest Shea island. I fully support legalization and think that it’s long overdue, but I agree with Nora and Keegan I don’t want the whole town to be a “place”.

John O'Neill June 23, 2022 at 10:10 am

I’m taking bets that a smoking “place” will not be anywhere near Rowayton. Although those residents may need a “joint” or two once revaluation is done. As I’ve said before we enjoy their property taxes, so I feel they should be able to do anything they want.

Piberman June 23, 2022 at 11:28 am

An estimated 100,000 Americans, mostly youngsters, reportedly are dying from illegally prescribed or faulty drugs reportedly coming over our unprotected border. With teenagers especially affected to Fentanyl readily secured by ordering on the web. Yet CT Dems see no serious risks of youngsters having increased access to pot and risking their lives “working up the drug ladder”. Given our inability to control illegal drugs circulating in CT expanding the use of pot is going in the wrong direction. Anyone know of our CT Med School faculty advocating expanding public use of pot ?

jm99 June 23, 2022 at 2:16 pm

If no one wants this in their own neighborhood, shouldn’t we just say NO to this as a city (like all of the communities around us)? Of course, the difference between them and us is that we need the money and they don’t. There is something wrong about concentrating weed dispensaries in communities that need municipal funds more than others. And the idea of making the entire city an area where public use of cannabis is permitted is insane. Anyone who has been to Springfield MASS recently would be able to tell you that the entire city reeks of weed. I’ll support this in Norwalk after Wilton, Wesport, Darien and New Canaan do.

David Muccigrosso June 23, 2022 at 3:46 pm

@Lindsay – That scheduling is hotly contested in the medical community, and the consensus in that community – along with most Americans – think it’s inappropriate. You’re committing the logical fallacy of “appeal to legality” when the issue at hand is clearly that the law is mistaken.

Also, state law has already legalized the drug, and the feds have chosen not to interfere with that decision. The proper policy process has been followed, it’s just the stupid schedule that hasn’t been updated because Congress are lazy and paralyzed by the filibuster, and the President has been trying to do things the small-d democratic way rather than unilaterally have the FDA reschedule it.

Regurgitating the schedule as if that proves anything only reveals your inability to deal with the new policy reality. It’s NOT a magic trump card against legalization.

@Piberman – I’m surprised you didn’t blame it on the renters. 😛

@Both: Gateway theory has long since been disproven. Update your priors!

If I were opposed to legalization, I’d be ashamed that these two arguments were the best my side had to offer.

NORWALK TAXPAYERS June 23, 2022 at 5:12 pm

Stigmatizing a drug? Who would’ve thought?

This is the society the left wants… a world where you are stigmatized for any and all of the above, but if you want to be a criminal, do drugs, expose children to inappropriate content, you will be free from being “stigmatized”!

Yay!

Tartuffo June 23, 2022 at 5:59 pm

Why even have the discussion? It is a countrywide effort to make teens,young adults, as well as future generations more “relaxed” and “accepting” about all these changes being imposed on many populations: Covid-19 mandatory vaccination, CRT, one-party rule in America, new wars, endless wars, constant disregard towards long-term effects of drugs, etc. Too many things are taking place in the new world-order, and a tamed population is totally in line with that. Just take it easy, have a smoke, and ride the wave! The 60s all over the place, minus the opportunities those times provided to the US population as well as the world!!! Let the good times roll, and let yourself be surrounded by entire generations of brainlessly errant minds! We’ll see where that takes us!
I accept that medically, it might help sick people, but it really doesn’t need to be out on the street, everywhere, and arround younger people. They learn by watching and replicating what others do around them. Why would you want a 1yo or 10yo, or any young child smell it and express curiosity about it? There are so many more interesting things for them to be curious about in the world!!
My advice: start the discussion with your kids. Watch them carefully, have rules and consequences, discipline them. Education about this stuff, and all the addictive things out there is essential. That is the only way to fight it. They will make a choice either way, and as a parent, you can only try your best! Something will eventually stick, and they might surprise you by making the right choice.
Whether you pick a city, a town, a park or an island as a zone, please have a “hut”with a few former addicts and/or medically trained personnel to assist in case of need, and provide information. We can’t stop the wave.

Kenneth Werner June 23, 2022 at 6:28 pm

Interesting conversation, but but no one has mentioned that any Norwalk resident has been able to obtain cannabis easily for a very long time. (If you don’t where, ask your kids.) The new legislation and rule-making is not “allowing” cannabis into our city since it’s been here. The legislation is trying to bring as large a portion of cannabis growing, retailing, and use as we can under public oversight and hopefully reduce the amount of illegal trafficking. Let’s hope we avoid the mistake California made: Placing such high taxes on growing and retailing that it’s cheaper to buy illegally.

piberman (not!) June 23, 2022 at 10:12 pm

Norwalk’s true Old Timers would all agree that, if we are to designate a public space for smoking weed, the place that would be most appropriate, historically and culturally, would be the the Cranbury Park (i.e. Gallagher Estate) parking lot. What better way to honor 60 years of Norwalk stoners?

John Levin June 23, 2022 at 10:14 pm

I think underutilized but easily accessible Irving Freese Park at the foot of Main Street is a suitable place for public consumption of cannabis products. Neighboring businesses include lots bars and restaurants, a tatoo parlor (Ink Side Out Tattoo Lounge), and Rebel Daughter Cookies (AMAZING!!) is close by at the end of Isaacs Street. (Currently) free public transportation is nearby too. I think our former five term mayor, Irving C. Freese, elected twice representing the Socialist Party of America and three times representing the Independent Party of Norwalk, would be pleased with this designation.

Steve Mann June 24, 2022 at 9:11 am

Folks, sorry to break this to you, but your friends and neighbors, and I suspect many of you reading this have been smoking weed for decades. No, you don’t need to tell them where to imbibe, or how to access the stuff. And I don’t believe they’ll agree to scoot off to whatever Isla de Marijuana leaders of Norwalk designate for them. What a hoot.

Jorge Calvo June 24, 2022 at 10:09 am

How about allow it everywhere in Norwalk, Twice a year when tax bills are mailed out. Everyone will benefit

Jorge Calvo June 24, 2022 at 10:11 am

I think it is amazing how liberal everyone is, trying to restrict something that was made legal. What gives you the right?
Last I checked – this was a free country!

Seriously? June 24, 2022 at 1:46 pm

@John Levin

YES, lets just turn Norwalk CT into Portland OR, where we have drug addicts and homeless lumbering about in every local park and public gathering area. That will surely improve our culture and raise property values, I see ZERO problem with people doing drugs in public!

KeepItClean June 26, 2022 at 1:55 am

Smoking cannabis should not be allowed in any public area as non-smokers should not have to breathe it without their consent. This should be obvious to any policy maker but apparently is not. Let your council person know.

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