Category Archives: Politics

Peter Dickstein’s Solful Startup

Ever since moving to the Bay Area nearly 35 years ago, Peter Dickstein has been immersed in that torrid startup scene.

The 1973 Staples High School graduate — and former University of Pennsylvania soccer captain — founded and operated a variety of companies. For the last 10 years he’s advised CEOs and boards on corporate and financial strategy.

Peter Dickstein

“I enjoy the process of building businesses, and doing deep dives. And I love helping younger entrepreneurs,” Dickstein says.

Now he’s building a new business. He’s doing it with a young co-founder. And he’s helping shape one of the fastest-growing industries around: legal cannabis.

In 2015, when Eli Melrod — son of longtime friends — took a pause from Wesleyan University, he sought Dickstein’s entrepreneurial experience. With California headed toward legalizing marijuana for recreational use, they looked at multiple opportunities: intellectual property acquisition and licensing, testing lab, cultivation, you name it.

The most compelling prospect, they believed, was creating a branded destination dispensary, focused on a great customer experience grounded in cannabis education. They would use healthful, locally grown products, sold in a warm, welcoming environment.

On January 1, Solful became one of 88 dispensaries across all of California licensed to sell to adults 21 and over. It’s in Sebastapol, nestled in Sonoma County.

Dickstein (the first person interviewed in the video clip above) is executive chairman. Melrod — who his mentor calls “diligent, thoughtful, curious and hard-working” — is CEO. With a team of marketing and retail experts, they’re building a brand and experience they hope to roll out in multiple locations.

“We didn’t want to be a head shop,” Dickstein emphasizes. “We want to be an important part of the communities we serve. We cater to mainstream consumers who want to improve their physical and mental health.”

That’s not, he says, what most dispensaries in California are like. Many are small “mom and pop” shops.

Opening a dispensary in California is not easy. Numerous state and local regulations demand diligent record-keeping and compliance. In the absence of normal business banking options, there are tough financial management challenges.

Obtaining a local permit is arduous too. Proposition 64 allows each jurisdiction to make its own rules. Marin County, for example, rejected a dozen or so applications, for reasons ranging from proposed locations to the backgrounds of applicants.

Publicly traded companies– including big drug, food and tobacco enterprises — are prohibited from investing in and selling cannabis. So most investors so far have been private entities and individuals, Dickstein says.

“We’re bringing a professional business approach, applying best business practices to what has, until now, been a black market, under-the-radar industry,” Dickstein says.

Solful is designed to bring light to the formerly underground sale of cannabis. The store is open, bright and natural-looking. It’s a happy, upbeat place, with a well-trained, friendly staff.

A few members of Solful’s large, well-trained and happy staff.

Products are well-organized, and clearly displayed. Thoughtful signage helps customers understand each product, along with how to ingest and the body’s reaction to it.

A 30-page “Solful Field Guide” (hard copy and online) provides even more information.

Staff members ask questions: “What are you trying to achieve with cannabis? Do you have any ailments? Have you used cannabis before? If so, did you smoke? Vape? Use edibles, topicals or tinctures? Most importantly, how did it affect you?”

There’s no hard sell. As with a store like Patagonia — one of the founders’ inspirational brands — the emphasis is on education and information. Farmers, health professionals and manufacturers are invited in, to give and see live demonstrations.

The shelves in Solful’s Sebastapol store.

The dispensary opened in early October, when only medicinal marijuana was legal in California. Almost immediately, wildfires devastated the region.

Solful’s staff headed into the community, helping residents and volunteering with the Red Cross. They fundraised for victims.

The store partnered with a major edible and vape pen manufacturer to supply medicine and devices to medically dependent people, becoming one of Sonoma’s 4 free distribution centers.

Since January 1, sales have been robust. Twenty-five percent are to people 60 and over.

Some customers seek relief from cancer and its treatment, epilepsy, glaucoma and depression. One uses cannabis to ease back pain; he’s now opioid free.

Some simply seek to relax, or alter their mood.

Solful offers a wide range of products.

The West — California, Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Alaska — leads the country in terms of recreational marijuana legalization. In the East, only Massachusetts and Maine have passed similar legislation.

What about Connecticut?

Because federal laws prohibit the movement of cannabis products across state lines — it’s classified as a Schedule 1 drug — Dickstein says the laws of economics suggest that the industry will evolve more quickly in states with bigger populations.

“If adult use happens in Connecticut, it would probably look more like Colorado — where the plant needs to be grown indoors — than California, where there’s a deep, multi-generation outdoor tradition,” Dickstein says of his home state.

So you probably won’t see Solful stores in the Land of Steady Habits any time soon — if at all.

But, Peter Dickstein believes, his branded destination dispensary model can be replicated in communities like Sebastapol across the Golden State.

It’s hardly a pipe dream.

Veterans Reflect On War — And Peace

Westport is awash in war stories.

This year’s WestportREADS library book — “Regeneration” — shines a light on a British officer’s refusal to continue serving during the “senseless slaughter” of World War I.

On January 28, the Westport Historical Society opens an exhibit honoring Ed Vebell. Now 96, the longtime resident was a noted illustrator during World War II. He’s drawn and written about the military ever since.

World Wars I and II — and Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan — come together at the WHS on Sunday, February 4 (3 p.m.). “On the Front: Veterans Reflections” offers insights into how war affects people, communities — and the peacetime that follows.

A panel of veterans — from World War II on — will provide their thoughts. But, says WHS education and programs director Nicole Carpenter — the hope is for plenty of questions and interactivity.

Ed Vebell is one of Westport’s honored — and few remaining — World War II veterans. Last May, he was grand marshal of the Memorial Day ceremonies.

“Obviously, the Historical Society’s mission is to remember where we’ve been,” she says. “But veterans are an important part of America today. Every discussion we have — whether it’s about foreign policy, healthcare, whatever — involves veterans.”

This is a poignant time in history, she notes. “We’re losing World War II veterans every day. We need to hear their voices before they’re gone.”

She hopes people will ask provocative questions — leading to an “open, progressive discussion.”

That’s important. After all, it’s what every veteran in history fought to protect.

How Not To Be A Racist

Or, more specifically: “How to be an Anti-Racist.”

That’s the topic of tomorrow’s (Sunday, January 14) 12th annual Martin Luther King Day Celebration in Westport. Dr. Ibram X. Kendi — winner of the 2016 National Book Award for Nonfiction — keynotes the 3 p.m. event, at the Westport Country Playhouse.

He’ll be joined by Chris Coogan and the Good News Gospel Choir, along with the Weston High School Jazz Ensemble. Students from the Regional Center for the Arts will present a dance piece too.

Kendi’s book — “Stamped From the Beginning” — examined the history of racial ideas in the US.

Dr. Ibram X. Kendi

An assistant professor of African American history at American University, he’s spent his career studying racist and anti-racist ideas and movements. He speaks nationally on issues like #BlackLivesMatter, and social justice.

Kendi began his research assuming that the major adherents of racist ideas were hateful and ignorant, and that racist policies like slavery, Jim Crow and mass incarceration resulted directly from them.

But as he dug deeper, he realized that political, economic and cultural self-interest lie behind the creation of racist policies — which, in turn, lead to racist ideas that rationalize deep inequities in everything from wealth to health.

Kendi’s address is free, and open to the public. It will be followed by an audience Q-and-A session. He’ll also sign books, which are available for sale at the event. The Westport Weston Family YMCA will provide childcare and activities in the studio adjacent to the theater.

The MLK celebration is co-sponsored by the Westport Library, Westport Country Playhouse, TEAM Westport and the Westport/Weston Interfaith Council.

Westporters From Haiti, Norway React To Trump

Westport is filled with all kinds of people.

We are citizens, and we are on various types of visas. A few of us are undocumented.

We are 1st-, 2nd-, 3rd- and 4th-generation Americans, and more. At least one of us — hey, Jacques Voris! – has had family in Westport for at least 10 generations.

We may be descendants of the Pequot tribe here — I’m not sure. If not, every one of us came from somewhere else.

We came from England, Germany and — hey, Saugatuck! — Italy. We came from Canada, Russia, Japan, India, Brazil, Mexico, Israel, Egypt, South Africa and Nigeria.

We came from Norway. And from Haiti.

In the wake of President Trump’s comments yesterday — do I have to remind you he called Haiti and African nations “shithole” countries, and wondered aloud why we don’t have more immigrants from Norway — I reached out to Westporters from those specific places.

Stephanie Mastocciolo is a 1st-generation American. Her parents moved to the US to continue her grandfather’s work in the Caribbean music industry.

Her mother was adamant that Stephanie and her 2 younger sisters take advantage of the limitless opportunities in the US — in education, and for their careers. Her mother wanted her girls to become well-rounded, open-minded individuals here too.

Stephanie was born and raised in Larchmont, New York. She moved first to Greenwich, then to Westport. She has lived here for 6 years, and has enjoyed raising her 2 children in this community. 

She calls Trump’s comments “offensive, hurtful and very un-American.”

She acknowledges, “Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Yes, it has a lot of political, social and economic problems. But many — if not all — nations do.”

Trump’s comments sadden her, “because America has come a long way to break down stereotypes and barriers that divide people. America was built on the hard work and ideas of people looking for a better way of life.

She adds, “All nations should be referred to with respect and facts, not ignorant opinions. His comments speak for themselves. They show the true colors of the President of the United States.”

Camilla Moe Røisland moved to Westport in September, with her husband (whose company is building windmills off Long Island) and 2 of her children (a 3rd — and their dog — arrived recently). She worked as a news presenter, reporter and producer for Norway’s biggest radio/TV company.

Camilla does not know if she should take Trump’s words as a compliment or not. She is proud of her country — but does not like it being singled out as a “good one” in comparison to others.

“That’s not worthy of a president. Doesn’t he know, or understand, that the US is built up by immigrants throughout history?” she asks. “America’s strength comes from diversity.”

Trump is right, Camilla says, that Norwegians are highly educated in general, and hard-working. But, she adds, “that doesn’t mean that we are better or smarter than others. We are lucky because we live in a country that gives people both opportunities and security.

“We have a good health system. We take care of everyone. And we believe that all are equal — you are worth a lot even if you are not a male, white, heterosexual and rich.”

So why did she and her family move here?

Her husband had a great work opportunity. They looked forward to a new experience.

It was challenging, sure. But Westport is beautiful, Camilla says. They’ve met “so many nice, warm and welcoming people. We love living close to New York, which is a very exciting and fun city.”

It’s also a city filled with people from all over the world. Including Norway and Haiti.

Westport is too.

And I believe that many — if not all — of my fellow Westporters are glad and proud to count Camilla and Stephanie as our neighbors.

Take A Knee? TEAM Westport Asks Teens Their Take

Last year, TEAM Westport‘s annual teen diversity essay contest tackled a hot topic: white privilege. Submissions were insightful and strong. Reaction was strong too, though not nearly as intelligent. A national controversy ensued.

TEAM Westport was not cowed. The town’s multicultural committee has just announced this year’s 5th annual contest. The topic is once again in the news.

And the idea once again is to make local teenagers — and everyone else reading their essays — think.

The prompt says:

Recently, several professional athletes have “taken a knee” during the singing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” to bring attention to — and to protest — ongoing bias and discriminatory practices in American society in general, and by law enforcement officers in particular.

In reaction, some people have called these athletes “unpatriotic.”  In 1,000 words or fewer, describe your understanding of what it means to be a patriot, what kinds of behavior you think would be unpatriotic, and what forms of protest against discriminatory laws, customs, or patterns of behavior you would consider legitimate.

This is not your typical essay contest.

But — as the nation continues to be grapple with issues relating to race, ethnicity, religion and identity, along with questions about what America is and what it stands for — it is exactly the kind of essay contest we need.

The contest — co-sponsored with the Westport Library — is open to students in grades 9 through 12 who attend Staples High School or another school in Westport, or who live in Westport and attend school elsewhere.

Applications are available here. The deadline is February 27. Winners will be announced at a ceremony at the library on April 2. Based on the volume and caliber of entries received, judges may award up to 3 prizes. First prize is $1,000; 2nd prize is $750, 3rd is $500.

(Individuals or organizations who would like to help sponsor the contest can click here or email info@teamwestport.org. Contributions are deductible to the extent permitted by law.)

Willie Salmond’s Africa Mission

Willie Salmond is a minister, ordained by the Church of Scotland in his home country. He’s owned a house in Westport for 30 years.

But he’s spent most of his life in Africa.

There were 10 years in Ghana. Seventeen in Uganda. Three more in Zimbabwe.

Willie Salmond

Salmond worked in international development with farmers. Then he trained Peace Corps volunteers.

His life changed when he was sent to San Francisco, to learn about AIDS. He went back to a camp in Kampala, to run Uganda’s first testing and counseling through a USAID-funded program.

Salmond is retired now. He’s back in Westport, where — during his stints here — he helped coach his 2 daughters’ soccer teams. Now he’s a member of the Y’s Men.

But for 10 days last month, he made a very meaningful return to Uganda.

He met a man and woman who at age 14 had lived in his first AIDS camp. Today they lead their own program.

Recently, Salmond spoke at the Saugatuck Congregational Church. Some parishioners were surprised to learn how grateful Ugandans are for the United States’ $18 million support for antiretroviral drugs.

Learning together at an AIDS program in Uganda.

The program was begun by President George W. Bush. It was reauthorized by President Obama. It continues under President Trump.

Salmond hopes it will keep going — though no one is sure. Stopping it, he says, would be “catastrophic. Many lives have been saved. Young people are assured a healthy future.”

There is a lot in the news these days about taxes, Salmond says. He believes firmly that this program is money well spent.

Very few Americans hear about programs like this. He would like at least his fellow Westporters to know about it.

5 Years After Sandy Hook: Candlelight Vigil Remembers — And Demands Action

Mark Barden lost his son Daniel in the Sandy Hook massacre. He will play guitar; his high school daughter Natalie will sing.

Speakers will include survivors of gun violence, from around the area. A gospel choir will sing.

Of course, candles will burn.

The event is a vigil next Sunday (December 10, 4:30 p.m., Westport Unitarian Church).

Sponsored by the church, Defendemocracy.com, Sandy Hook Promise and CT Against Gun Violence, it’s part of a nationwide effort to remember the 5th anniversary of that awful day — and enact meaningful change.

 

Westporter Darcy Hicks is one of the organizers. She says, “This vigil is one of hundreds across the country this week. We believe the best way to honor the half million people killed by guns since the Sandy Hook shooting is to insist on common sense gun legislation. The ongoing failure of Congress to take action is inexcusable.”

Hicks is organizing the vigil with the same women — Lisa Bowman, Nita Prasad and Lauren Soloff — who worked on Westport’s “Democracy on Display” march earlier this year.

They’ve gotten help from Defendemocracy’s Heidi Hammer, Sara Kempner and Cathy Rozynek.

It’s a community-wide effort, Hicks says, to address a national problem. For more information, click here.

 

James Comey, The Bible, The Buddha And Westport

Yesterday, James Comey joined 800 million other Instagram users.

Perhaps it was a coincidence — he may have finally gotten around to unpacking all those boxes, following the sale of his Greens Farms home and being fired as FBI director — but his first-ever post got a lot more attention than most people’s cats or restaurant meals.

Shortly after Michael Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to (whoa!) the FBI, Comey — who snagged the pretty-obvious-but-apparently-untaken username “Comey” — posted a just-subtle-enough biblical verse: “But let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” 

He illustrated it with a lovely photo of an ever-flowing stream.

It quickly racked up over 21,000 likes.

However, it was his 2nd — and so far, final — photo that makes this an “06880”-worthy story.

Two hours ago, Comey posted this shot:

It’s a scene every Westporter is familiar with — and loves.

So does Comey. His caption: “Beautiful Long Island Sound from Westport, CT. To paraphrase the Buddha — Three things cannot be long hidden: the sun; the moon; and the truth.”

It’s already gotten over 8,000 likes.

Many of his Instagram followers agree with his message.

But whatever your politics, “06880” readers agree: This “Comey” guy knows a beautiful sunset when he sees one.‬

 

Nicole Klein: National Election Inspires Local Race

In the aftermath of Donald Trump’s election last year, Nicole Klein felt “helpless and hopeless.”

The Westport resident could not understand how America had chosen such a man as its leader.

“I’m a very positive person,” Klein says. “But I became very negative.” She vowed to do something to change her state of mind.

The New York City native had spent 17 years at McKinsey; now she was global event manager. In April 2014 she, her husband Fred and young son Carter had moved to Westport from the city, for the schools and amenities.

Nicole and Fred Klein.

In the past, Klein had volunteered for presidential campaigns. But she had never — not in New York, or her new hometown — been involved in local politics.

Now was the time.

She quit her high-powered job. In March, Klein became deputy registrar of voters.

Working in Town Hall, she learned the ins and outs of Westport government. The Representative Town Meeting intrigued her.

“RTM had just been an acronym to me,” she says. “But I realized how important it is. It’s Westport’s legislative branch.”

When 2 members of her Greens Farms district decided not to run for re-election — and Klein realized there were no “moms,” or even any females — representing District 5, she threw her hat in the ring.

She knew nothing about campaigning. Friends offered advice: Go to the train station. Go to the transfer station. Make signs.

It was a very competitive race. In 8 of Westport’s 9 districts, 4 or 5 candidates vied for 4 seats. District 5 had 8.

“People made websites, brochures, mailings and signs,” Klein says. “There was a lot of canvassing.”

The 1st-time candidate faced hurdles. A random draw placed her name at the bottom of the ballot.

Because election season is the busiest time of year for the registrars’ staff, she could not campaign for herself on that crucial Election Day. Fortunately, an “amazing team” — including her husband and son — stepped in.

Carter Klein scrupulously obeys the electioneering law.

Oh, yeah: Just a few days before the election, the Kleins moved from their rented condo into a new home.

“There was a lot going on,” Klein says understatedly.

With over 1,900 voters to reach, she focused on the population she felt she could best impact: the school community. “I hoped people were excited about a mom running,” she says.

They were. Klein earned the 2nd highest number of votes in District 5.

It took a while before she learned the news, though. She was so busy at Town Hall, she could not immediately check the text her husband sent from the Greens Farms Elementary School polling place, with the results.

As an unknown quantity in a heavily contested race, lacking name recognition, Klein had steeled her son for the possibility of defeat.

“I told Carter the important thing was to get involved, go for it and try your best,” she recalls. “I told him I would still be committed, win or lose.”

During the campaign, Klein surprised herself by realizing how much she wanted to win. The closer Election Day loomed, the more she hoped she could serve.

Now she looks forward to learning even more about how Westport works — and about how to help her district. She has heard constituents’ concerns about high-speed trains coming through the Greens Farms station, maintaining the stellar school system, and the financial stability of the town. She is not afraid to asks questions, and learn more.

Klein knows a handful of RTM members, current and new. She is excited to meet her colleagues — “a great group, with a fantastic influx of new people.”

The other day, a League of Women Voters member asked Klein to serve coffee at tonight’s swearing-in ceremony for Westport elected officials (7:30 p.m., Town Hall).

Klein had to say no. She’ll be busy taking the oath of office herself.

Free Sherwood Island!

Overlooked in the blizzard of news following the passage of our state’s last-in-the-nation budget is this:

Starting January 1, Connecticut residents will no longer pay for admission to 24 state parks and 3 state forests.

It’s covered through a new Department of Motor Vehicles charge: $10, paid every 2 years.

If you’re like me, and fail to see a connection between the DMV and the Department of Environmental and Energy Protection, look at the bottom line: The new charge will raise $16 million of the $18 million needed for annual operation of the parks.

Fees collected will be kept separate from Connecticut’s general fund.

Shewood Island State Park: 232 acres of prime real estate, right here in Westport.

What does that mean for Westport?

For one thing, Sherwood Island — the often-overlooked 232-acre gem right inside our borders — might get a few more town visitors.

For another, I’m sure someone will suggest that the solution to our Compo Beach crowds is to shunt more out-of-towners to the state park.

Of course, free admission applies only to Connecticut residents. Whether at Sherwood Island or Compo, New Yorkers still have to pay.