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Final RI marijuana dispensary license remains in limbo

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — As five newly-licensed medical marijuana dispensaries get ready to open in Rhode Island in 2022, the lottery for the sixth and final dispensary remains delayed as another applicant appeals its disqualification.

Depending on the outcome of the appeal, either Pawtucket or East Providence will be getting a marijuana dispensary.

The state held a long-delayed lottery in October, randomly selecting five businesses seeking to open medical dispensaries (known as compassion centers) across five pre-determined regions. It’s the first time Rhode Island has expanded medical cannabis since the original three dispensaries were authorized nearly a decade ago.

But the lottery left out Zone 6 — the final geographic region, stretching from Pawtucket through East Providence to Aquidneck Island — because a company called Atlas Enterprises appealed its disqualification from the lottery. Atlas was seeking to open a dispensary in Newport, which bans them.

In November, Atlas withdrew its appeal, appearing to pave the way for a lottery to be held in Zone 6. But there was another hold-up: two of the applicants in Zone 6 that back in April were initially qualified for the lottery failed to get zoning approvals in their respective cities.

Rhode Island Care Concepts, which applied to open a dispensary on Circle Street in East Providence, was denied a use variance by the city’s Zoning Board of Review in August, writing in a decision that it would “alter the general character of the surrounding area,” which includes single-family homes and a daycare center. The board suggested an industrial zone as a more appropriate location.

New Leaf Compassion Center, proposed on India Street in Pawtucket, was also denied a special use permit and variance in that city in September.

The R.I. Department of Business Regulation, which requires dispensary applicants to be in compliance with local zoning laws, sent both companies letters on Nov. 17 disqualifying them from the lottery.

Rhode Island Care Concepts is now appealing that decision under the DBR’s administrative rules. A pre-conference hearing is set for Wednesday. (New Leaf is not appealing, according to DBR.)

Attorney Robert Corrente, who is representing Rhode Island Care Concepts, did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment.

The only applicant left currently qualified in Zone 6 is Mother Earth Wellness in Pawtucket. The owner, Joe Pakuris, plans to open a dispensary on Esten Avenue if selected. No date is set for the lottery because of the appeal.

Rhode Island Care Concepts is also separately appealing East Providence’s zoning decision to the R.I. Superior Court.

Applicants seeking to open new compassion centers have had to traverse a series of complicated and expensive hurdles to get licensed. In addition to Zone 6, Rhode Island Care Concepts applied to open dispensaries in Zones 2, 4 and 5, but was not pulled out of the lottery in October. The applications cost $10,000 each.

Many businesses had to seek special zoning permissions from the city or town where they wanted to open up shop, unless they proposed a location that was already in a zone that allows marijuana businesses.

And since applicants had to secure premises before applying, many have been paying rent for empty spaces during the long delay to issue licenses. Those who were picked from the lottery will need to pay a $500,000 licensing fee before opening their stores.

The cost will likely be worth it for those who won licenses; in the 2020 fiscal year, Rhode Island’s three dispensaries made a combined $68 million, according to state revenue figures.

The other five new dispensaries that were selected from the lottery in October were 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. The companies have until July to get up and running.

The existing three compassion centers are in Providence, Warwick and Portsmouth. Rhode Island lawmakers approved the expansion to nine dispensaries in 2019.

Steph Machado (smachado@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter covering Providence, politics and more for 12 News. Connect with her on Twitter and on Facebook.

Copyright 2022 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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