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Warwick considering new rules to limit marijuana dispensaries

West Bay

Summit Medical Compassion Center is currently the only marijuana dispensary in Warwick. A proposed zoning ordinance could keep it that way. (file photo)

Breaking news update: Councilman Timothy Howe said Thursday morning he plans to withdraw the proposed ordinance. Previous story below.

WARWICK, R.I. (WPRI) — The Warwick City Council is considering changing zoning rules in a way that could keep new marijuana dispensaries out of the city, as the state gears up for a lottery to determine how to dole out six coveted new licenses.

A zoning change proposed by Councilman Timothy Howe would effectively prevent a second dispensary — known as a compassion center — from opening in Warwick.

But the city’s Planning Department is already recommending against the measure, saying it would “preclude competition.”

“We already have one in Warwick that is going just fine,” Howe told 12 News when reached by phone Wednesday. He said he submitted the proposed zoning change at the request of a constituent, whom he did not name. (He said no one from Summit Medical Compassion Center, the existing dispensary, asked him to submit the proposal.)

Howe said his primary goal was to allow the public to weigh in on whether Warwick allows a new dispensary in the city, rather than leaving it up to state regulators. The City Council process of reviewing the ordinance will include a public hearing, he said.

The city planning board voted Wednesday night to recommend the City Council amend the proposal to allow new compassion centers to open in two industrial zones in the city, if licensed by the state.

“It basically totally bans everything but what is in existence,” City Solicitor Peter Clarkin explained to the board, referring to Howe’s proposal. “I’m not convinced that would withstand a legal challenge.”

Luke Murray of the Planning Department also said the proposal is “inconsistent” with Warwick’s comprehensive zoning plan. He noted that there had been “little to no adverse impact” of the existing cannabis industry in the city.

Warwick already has one of the state’s three compassion centers, Summit Medical Compassion Center on Jefferson Boulevard. At most, the city could get one more dispensary next year, as the Raimondo administration plans to evenly distribute the licenses throughout the state among six geographic zones.

But aside from Summit, many residents may be unaware of the dozens of other marijuana facilities quietly operating in the city. Licensed cannabis cultivators are growing medical marijuana mostly in large, unmarked warehouses in industrial zones with little indication from the outside of what is blooming indoors. The cultivators sell their product to the three compassion centers in Rhode Island and cannot currently sell to the public.

Many of the state’s dozens of cultivators are expected to apply — or have already applied — to get one of the new licenses to become a compassion center. The applications went live in July and are due on December 15, and the state plans to randomly select one applicant from each of six geographic zones in a lottery early next year.

But passage of a zoning change that bans new dispensaries in Warwick could mean cannabis growers in that city are out of the running to become a retailer, unless they find a second location in another city and amend their applications before the deadline. The state requires applicants to show they comply with local zoning laws.

Vincent Gambardella, a member of the planning board, remarked that the city has a “boatload of empty buildings” he’d like to see put to use, which is what has been happening with the cannabis industry. The Planning Department said the existing marijuana businesses pay tens of thousands of dollars in tangible taxes each year, plus they increase the values of the oft-vacant buildings they lease which means more property tax dollars.

Alex Lavin, CEO of Growth Industries of New England which runs the Kelsy Green cultivation facility inside Dean Warehouse in Warwick, argues it makes little sense to prohibit another compassion center in the city. He plans to apply for one of the new licenses, and if selected from the lottery would open the dispensary inside the same warehouse where he currently grows medical cannabis.

“I believe you should be able to have another dispensary location in Warwick,” Lavin told 12 News. “There’s a Dunkin’ Donuts, does that mean you can’t have a Starbucks or a Honey Dew?”

He argued there is “more than enough population” to justify an additional dispensary in the city.

For purposes of drawing an applicant out of the lottery, Warwick is in a zone with Cranston, East Greenwich and North Kingstown. Only one compassion center will be allowed to open within that area.

“The state came up with the zones and the city Of Warwick deserve a say concerning this highly regulated industry,” Howe said.

The Department of Business Regulation — which issues the licenses and regulates Rhode Island’s cannabis industry — did not immediately comment on the Warwick zoning proposal to bar future compassion centers.

A spokesperson for Warwick Mayor Joseph Solomon said he had not seen enough information yet to take a position on the issue.

Steph Machado (smachado@wpri.com) covers Providence, politics and more for WPRI 12. Follow her on Twitter and on Facebook

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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