PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Five new medical marijuana dispensaries are expected to open across the state in the coming months after a long-awaited lottery on Friday randomly selected the winners, who had applied for the coveted licenses last year.
The lottery, which selected from geographic zones in order to spread out the access to medical cannabis, resulted in five winners: RMI Compassion Center in Woonsocket, Pinnacle Compassion Center in Central Falls, Green Wave Compassion Center in Foster, Solar Therapeutics in Cranston, and Plant Based Compassionate Care in South Kingstown.
None of those municipalities currently have a dispensary, known in Rhode Island as compassion centers; the existing three are in Providence, Warwick and Portsmouth.
“That matters for patients, who are going to have a diversity of competitively priced and high quality medicine in geographic proximity to their homes,” said Matt Santacroce, the state’s chief of cannabis regulation.
The lottery was conducted by the Department of Business Regulation using R.I. Lottery balls and a tumbler borrowed from Twin River, with a blindfolded Russell Griffiths — a former FBI agent and current DBR official — pulling the winners. He wore short sleeves to help show there was no funny business, which was the goal in the first place of randomly selecting the coveted licenses.
“It was like we were in Vegas,” remarked Edward Dow, CEO of Solar Therapeutics, which was selected in Zone 4. “We’re thrilled. We’re really excited to be here — we’ve been looking at Rhode Island for a long time.”
Solar Therapeutics already has Massachusetts locations in Somerset, Seekonk and Dartmouth, and submitted three applications to increase the odds of getting a chance to move into Rhode Island. (If applicants were picked more than once, they would have had to decide on the spot which location to open.)
Submitting multiple applications — at $10,000 each — didn’t work for everyone. Rhode Island Compassion Center Inc. was in the lottery for four out of the five zones on Friday, but didn’t get picked at all.
The dozens of business owners and their representatives from 23 companies sat tensely in the conference room in assigned seats as they watched the proceedings, carefully choreographed by state officials.
The lottery idea originated with former Gov. Gina Raimondo, who won a battle with legislative leaders about how to award the licenses in a way that would avoid any appearance of special deals for politically connected applicants.
Friday’s lottery did not include the applicants for Zone 6, which stretches from Pawtucket through the East Bay. One of the disqualified applicants in that zone, Atlas Enterprises LLC, is appealing the decision, holding up the Zone 6 lottery. (Atlas applied to open a dispensary in Newport, where they are banned by city ordinance.)
Friday’s event comes nearly two and a half years after the General Assembly approved the expansion of medical marijuana from three dispensaries to nine.
Dozens of applicants were approved for the lottery, though some were disqualified because they did not conform to local zoning laws at their proposed location. One applicant was disqualified because he had previously admitted to paying a bribe to former Fall River Mayor Jasiel Correia while seeking a cannabis license in that city.
The expansion of the program is expected to provide more access for thousands of patients who use the medicine, and more business opportunity for nearly 70 licensed cannabis growers who have only ever had three stores where they can sell their product.
That’s why Jason Calderon, who wasn’t picked from the lottery in Zone 4 on Friday, wasn’t too disappointed. He owns a cultivation facility in Exeter called Bonsai Buds, so the existence of new dispensaries will give him more outlets to sell his product.
“Just to have an opportunity, a one-in-10 shot of getting it, that’s better odds than you’ll get in any other lottery,” Calderon said. “We would’ve liked to have one, but we’re happy nonetheless that they actually got this process going.”
Not everyone had the same attitude. Alex Lavin, CEO of Growth Industries of New England, has been a longtime critic of the lottery process. His proposed dispensary was not picked from the lottery in Zone 4.
“It’s bingo. It was all left to chance,” he said. “Would you want to choose out of a hat of who’s going to do heart surgery or who’s going to give you your medication?”
Lavin runs a cultivation facility in Warwick, and wanted to sell his own product to customers. He questioned during the drawing Friday whether the DBR officials had sweaty hands, affecting their handling of the lottery balls.
The new licensees now have preliminary licenses, and have nine months to get final licenses and open their dispensaries. They must pay an annual licensing fee to the state of $500,000.
While the licensing fee is steep — prohibitively so, for some prospective business owners — the new compassion center owners are likely to get preference in getting a retail license once Rhode Island approves recreational marijuana.
Lawmakers are close to a deal on recreational cannabis, after the Senate passed a bill earlier this year that was in conflict with Gov. Dan McKee’s competing proposal. Officials from the House, Senate and McKee’s office have been negotiating through the summer and fall to come to a compromise.
While the recreational cannabis bill is likely to include some designated licenses for women, minorities and social equity applicants, such provisions were not included in the medical marijuana bill in 2019 that led to Friday’s lottery.