HARTFORD -- By the spring, hundreds of patients will be able to shop at licensed dispensaries and buy Connecticut-grown marijuana in what state officials believe will be the tightest-controlled, best-regulated program in the nation for the medicinal use of the psychoactive plant.
After two-and-a-half hours of tough questioning Tuesday, the General Assembly's Regulation Review Committee approved the new regulations. Supporters of the law, who filled a Legislative Office Building meeting room, burst into applause.
For Tracey Gamer Fanning, the approval was like a birthday present. The West Hartford woman and medical marijuana advocate has been battling a brain tumor.
"The day I started using marijuana was the day that I got my life back, literally," she said. "I really regained what the cancer had stolen from me."
She said that it won't be long before she and thousands of others in the state will stop going to the underground market for pain relief.
Gone, she said, will be the stigma of illegal drug use.
Committee members who opposed the 2012 law questioned the implications of legalizing a drug that the federal government opposes. But in the end, in a voice vote, the bipartisan committee approved the 75 pages of regulations, including more than 100 last-minute changes.
Now, potential marijuana growers and dispensers eager to get into business will wait for state Department of Consumer Protection Commissioner William M. Rubenstein to solicit proposals.
Sen. Andres Ayala Jr., D-Bridgeport, co-chairman of the committee, said it was clear all along that the regulations were going to be approved.
"We definitely had the votes to pass it," Ayala said. "It went through extensive, extensive, extensive questions and answers. There were legitimate concerns about the issue, but I think the Department of Consumer Protection did a phenomenal job."
Opponents warned that the law could bring the wrath of the United States Justice Department.
"You don't tug on Superman's cape," said Sen. Leonard A. Fasano, R-North Haven, noting the legal exposure Connecticut could face if the federal government chose to shut down the program and even arrest state officials. He invoked a scenario that has not taken place in any state where the drug has been legalized.
Fasano, who voted against the medical marijuana bill in 2012, questioned the state officials for 100 minutes on issues ranging from the chemical makeup of the drug to who will determine what strain of marijuana will be recommended for the eligible ailments.
Sen. Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, had opposed medical marijuana in earlier votes, but said the law is now crafted to prevent people from using it if they're not eligible.
"There are much stricter laws in place," Duff said after the vote. "So I felt comfortable today that the law and the regulations will make Connecticut have the strictest medical marijuana law in the country and we're a model."
Tens of thousands of state residents with debilitating ailments, including cancer, glaucoma, HIV, AIDS, Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, Crohn's disease or post-traumatic stress disorder could be eligible. They need certification from a physician.
Since October, 881 patients have been certified by state doctors and 600 have received ID cards that allow them to possess marijuana without legal ramifications. Eighteen states have medical marijuana programs and two more have approved similar laws.
Joseph Palmieri, of Easton, a farmer and environmental clean-up contractor who wants to start a marijuana-growing operation in Bridgeport, said the committee vote was encouraging.
"It's a milestone here that we hit and we're going to be in a new industry," he said after the vote. "The whole issue has been reviewed very thoroughly."
Palmieri has been growing tomatoes in his Bridgeport cultivation operation, eager to show the Department of Consumer Protection his plans for becoming one of 10 designated growers in the state.
By next spring, patients will be able to buy Connecticut-grown marijuana in licensed dispensaries in what state officials believe will be the tightest-controlled, best-regulated program in the nation.
Rubenstein succeeded in his pitch to the committee for immediate adoption of the rules.
"In short, we have been diligent, faithful and have hewed faithfully" to the 2012 law that enacted the program, he said. If the committee had rejected the regulations, which were put in motion by last year's legislative approval of medical marijuana, it would have dealt the program a major setback.
In a second, unanimous vote, the committee agreed to reclassify marijuana from a Schedule I drug with no medical benefits, to a Schedule II substance like other pharmaceuticals. The reclassification was necessary for the program to move forward.
Fanning, who is president of the Connecticut Brain Tumor Alliance, considered the approval a birthday present -- Tuesday was her 43rd birthday -- and a breakthrough in Connecticut medicine.
She uses marijuana in edible, smokeable or in a vapor, depending on her symptoms, she said, and credits the drug with freeing her from heavy narcotics that confined her to bed. Her brain tumor has stayed the same size for many months now, she said.
"It helps me get out of bed," Fanning said. "I don't suffer from unspeakable pain and I can actually talk, take care of my kids and have a life."