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Lawmaker: Halt RI pot licenses and probe political connections

Politics

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — A prominent state lawmaker says Rhode Island should halt the issuance of additional marijuana licenses until an investigation is conducted into whether politically connected companies and individuals have gotten a leg up in the process.

Target 12 reported last week that Green Reservoir Inc., a newly established company with high-level State House connections, has threatened to sue the state if applications aren’t immediately accepted for the six additional licenses that the General Assembly authorized in June. One investor said Green Reservoir has already fitted out its facility in Warwick before it could even apply for a license.

State Rep. Charlene Lima, D-Cranston, said Wednesday she found the revelation about Green Reservoir “very, very troubling.” Lima, who serves as deputy House speaker, has been warning for years that the marijuana industry needs close scrutiny to avoid real or perceived corruption.

Lima questioned why Green Reservoir had apparently already built a new medical marijuana dispensary — known in Rhode Island as a compassion center — at a building in Warwick when lawmakers had not even authorized additional licenses to open them until just a few months ago.

“Why would anybody in their right mind go out and spend so much money?” Lima asked. “Did you have a guarantee you were going to get that license? … Why did you do that? Who told you to do that? What made you think you were going to be the one?”

State Rep. Anastasia Williams, D-Providence, tweeted her answer:

Officials from Green Reservoir and its sister company — Kelsey Green, also known as Growth Industries of New England — have not yet responded to messages seeking comment. Growth Industries has been paying $9,000 a month since February to Mark Ryan, a prominent State House lobbyist, and a lawyer from Ryan’s firm sent the letter earlier this month containing the litigation threat.

Ryan is known for his close ties to House Democratic leadership, and House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello’s spokesperson confirmed that Mattiello visited Growth Industries’ facility in Warwick back on April 26, “in keeping with his focus on economic development.”

A campaign spokesperson also confirmed that Alex Lavin, the manager of Growth Industries and Green Reservoir, was one of the players who participated in the speaker’s charitable golf tournament in August.

So far Mattiello is the only one of Rhode Island’s three top State House leaders who has visited Growth Industries’ Warwick facility: spokespersons for Gov. Gina Raimondo and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio both confirmed they have not gone there.

About two months after Mattiello visited Green Industries, the House amended the budget to take control of regulations for new marijuana dispensaries, a move that Common Cause has condemned as unconstitutional. Raimondo has filed suit over the provision, which Mattiello now says he no longer supports and plans to repeal in January.

Raimondo has also proposed picking the six additional dispensaries using a lottery to limit political influence over who gets the lucrative licenses, citing the recent indictment of Fall River’s mayor for allegedly accepting bribes from companies seeking to set up pot shops in his city.

Lima said all new licensing of marijuana companies should be suspended until law enforcement or an “independent investigatory body” has investigated the current situation, and said she is considering filing legislation when the General Assembly reconvenes to deal with the issue.

There was no immediate response to Lima from Mattiello’s office.

Lima has been speaking out about her concerns over Rhode Island’s marijuana policies for years. In 2016, she issued a press release calling on the Department of Business Regulation to release more information about the individuals and entities applying for cultivation licenses. She said she soon began hearing from people who were unhappy with the process.

“It’s just ripe, because of the amount of money being expended, for total corruption,” Lima said.

Lima drew attention again during this past June’s budget debate, when she delivered a floor speech raising concerns about the last-minute changes to the marijuana section of the bill made by Mattiello’s leadership team. She urged Attorney General Peter Neronha to pay close attention to marijuana businesses.

“I hope our new AG will really keep an eye on this and look at any irregularities and the whole industry,” she said. “Make it transparent. Put in strong safeguards.”

“There are allegations out there about what law firms had to be hired, people buying buildings before being OK’d,” Lima continued. “If we don’t change this application process and the way dispensaries are awarded, I warn you today – I warn you today – this will be another 38 Studios debacle, with indictments in years ahead. Mark my words.”

She added, “This whole thing could blow up and be very embarrassing to this state.”

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) is WPRI 12’s politics and business editor and a Target 12 investigative reporter. He is a weekly panelist on Newsmakers and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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