Dan Haar: Mission to buy weed with CT lawmaker is gold for Mass.
We were somewhere around the state Capitol in Hartford, 9:15 on a Monday morning, when the workweek began to take effect.
Rep. Josh Elliott jumps into my aging 5-speed Honda. We merge onto Interstate 91 northbound on a mission to Northampton, Massachusetts, where the Hamden Democrat and I will land some marijuana and pay some taxes.
It was part of our quest to witness exactly what we both hope to see in Connecticut — him as a leading lawmaker favoring adult-use weed sales, me as an economics columnist adding up state sources of revenue.
While we were at it, we’d lay down some cash at MGM Springfield, another big north-of-the-border draw for Connecticut residents. And we’d make a few other stops in our neighboring state: a convenience store for gasoline, a package store for Scotch, maybe pay a highway toll and some other surprises.
You get the idea. If two guys traveled to Massachusetts for a few hours to buy or do things that either don’t exist in Connecticut, or cost a lot more — all due to our state policies — how would the numbers shape up?
And how much cash would leave Connecticut over hundreds of thousands of trips like the one we took on a seasonably cold weekday?
At 9:54 a.m., we arrive at New England Treatment Access, a marijuana retailer in a nondescript, freestanding building right on the way into town off exit 18. With the small NETA lot already full, we park across the street in a row of spaces NETA leases in the uncrowded parking lot of the Northampton Gazette newspaper.
A woman under NETA’s covered entryway, wielding a handheld scanner for drivers’ licenses, assures me, “This records nothing. It just makes my job easier.”
Inside, the line moves quickly, about seven minutes, to an arc of nine busy bud-tender stations, seven staffed by young men. Off to one side, three people stood sentry at a quieter counter for pickup of online orders. Across the room, yet another counter backed by four tenders was the place to go for medical patients — a different menu of products, with some overlap.
Our guy, who freely gave his name in violation of the rules, had close-cropped hair and really knew his stuff. Let’s call him Fred so he doesn’t get fired. “I’ve seen people from South Carolina, North Carolina, Idaho, Ohio,” he says. “We’re a little more corporate. We’re less mom & pop.”
I ask about traditional flower buds. Josh asks about oils for vaping and other derivatives. The 7-page order sheet showed names like Facewreck, Ghost Train Haze and the famous Walker Kush for buds, while edibles and other derived products just had names like D-Line Upside Capsules.
Fred offers way more than the basics about the active compounds THC and CBD, and the strains, sativa and indica. “When you eat an edible and your liver metabolizes it,” he explains. “It becomes a chemical called hydroxy-11 metabolite.” His point: “Usually it’s good to ease into the edibles.”
He talks about his training and his long experience with ganja, beyond the months he’s been at NETA. “I know these products.”
The store was already established as a medical pot dispensary when it became one of the first two to open for adult-use recreational sales in Massachusetts in November. Early on, the waits were typically hours but they’ve dropped down, especially in the morning early in the week.
I buy 3.5 grams of the Ghost for $50 plus $10 in tax using a debit card — credit cards not accepted. That 20 percent includes the regular state sales tax, 6.25 percent; a local tax of 3 percent; and a 10.75 percent marijuana excise tax. Josh spends $198 plus with a tax of $39.60.
TALLY SO FAR: $49.60 into state and local coffers.
In the parking lot as we leave, a retired mechanical engineer named Jack asks what we were doing as I count license plates — one-quarter from Connecticut in a highly unscientific sample. That’s the same percentage I found in a more rigorous look at MGM Springfield last fall.
Turned out he was from Newington on a regular visit with his wife. “I’d just as soon buy it in Connecticut and pay my taxes,” Jack says.
On March 7, NETA received state approval to expand its medical dispensary in Brookline to full adult-use, the 12th license granted by the state’s Cannabis Control Commission. That would be the first recreational outlet on the Boston transit lines, which will change the game entirely.
Off to the next retail dispensary, Insa, in the next town, Easthampton. On the back roads, we talk about whether adult use legalization expands total use of pot, and if it does, whether that hurts the case for Connecticut to legalize.
“Yeah, that’s a problem for the argument,” Elliott says,. “That said, that’s only if it’s true, because all we have is anecdotal evidence.”
We arrive at Insa, so named for indica and sativa, the major strains of pot, located in a refurbished old factory mill, a former textile plant. I’m stopped at the door, unable to get in because my Connecticut driver’s license is temporary, printed on a sheet of paper at AAA. The guy at the door, extremely knowledgeable of the business, cites the state law that disallows him from recognizing that as a form of ID.
While I’m waiting for Josh, the guy explains to me that Insa is self-contained in the historic building, with offices, grow rooms and production right on premises. And he tells me, the company hopes to open the first marijuana cafe in a former restaurant location in Springfield.
“It’s going to take some time to work it out,” he says. Um, yeah.
Josh emerges with $20 worth of chocolates for me and $46.66 worth of stuff for himself, plus the 20 percent taxes.
TALLY SO FAR: $62.93 into state and local coffers
Exiting the Insa parking lot, we see a sign for a hemp and CBD products store in the next building. It’s a family operation called Ora Care, staffed by Violet Hall as her husband and daughter scurry about doing work. It’s an outlet for the family farm nearby — with production facilities in the same building for tinctures, creams and many other products made of CBD, a non-psychoactive compound in the plant.
Connecticut has yet to legalize commercial hemp production, though that, like adult-use marijuana, is wending its way through the General Assembly.
Hall, a chippy Scotswoman, declares the farm — Misty Valley — was the first in Massachusetts to organize a hemp festival. “Now is the time to look forward, to think forward,” she says. “We grow it seed to table, we are all natural, no hormones, no chemicals.”
It’s enough to sell me on a very small container of CBD honey — local, of course — for $49.99 plus the regular sales tax of $3.12 at 6.25 percent.
Off to MGM. On the way, we stop off in Holyoke, where Jorge Tirse is setting up a marijuana operation, with preliminary approvals, in a hard-to-find, converted warehouse. He’s spending millions of dollars setting up a series of walled-off grow and production rooms and a front area for retail, with the floor marked “East Coast Pharms.”
“We’ll be doing some growing here, we’ll be manufacturing products and we’ll be selling as well,” Tirse tells us, as he shows off a 2,900-square-foot room — part of the 20,000-square-foot growing operation — that features 86, 1,000-watt, high-pressure sodium lights mounted on a system of metal brackets that will rise as the plants grow taller.
He talks about tissue cloning, light duration and other details, in a building once used to manufacture car-washing chemicals, and later to store cars and boats.
Tirse expects to grow as much as 180 pounds a week. I try to do the math in my head at retail prices averaging $12 a gram. Later I find a bio online for Tirse: “Experienced Chief Operations Officer with a demonstrated history of working in the underground grow industry...skilled in...customer service.”
We travel a couple of exits on the Mass Pike but don’t pass under any gantries, so that’s a free ride. In West Springfield, I fill up the tank at a Shell convenience store, 11.8 gallons at $2.19.9 cents a gallon. Tax is 24 cents a gallon — less than Connecticut’s total, which averages about 50 cents a gallon, but the petrol is well more than 26 cents cheaper than in Connecticut.
Tally so far: $69.88 into state and local coffers
Before we hit the casino, it’s time for a late lunch. Directly across Main Street from MGM, Raices Restaurant serves up huge quantities of beans and rice with roasted pork and beef stew, $18 for two, plus tip. It’s $1.26 in tax — the 6.25 percent state charge plus 0.75 percent for the city of Springfield.
Finally, to the casino, Josh’s first trip. He’s a former professional poker player so he comes away with a win of $103 after an hour at a low-stakes table. But don’t worry about MGM and Massachusetts. The winnings are from other players at the table. Based on the number of hands, Josh figures the house took in $10 just from him, of which the state’s share would be 25 percent, or $2.50.
I drop a quick $30 on a blackjack table, pure gross profit for the casino and $7.50 for the state.
On the way back home, we stop at a Springfield package store, where prices are less than in Connecticut. I buy a 3/4 liter bottle of Dewar’s Scotch for $29.99. There’s no tax at the cash register but the wholesale tax amounts to 80 cents.
Final tally: $80.94 paid in state and local taxes. Total spent on goods and services, $467.60, minus $103 in poker winnings. Grand total gain for the Massachusetts economy: $445.54.
That’s money we won’t spend in Connecticut. Elliott, back at the Capitol, is adamant the revenue isn’t a reason to legalize recreational pot — it’s about freedom and justice to him — but I disagree. Yes it’s the right thing to do, but we also need the cash.