PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Medical marijuana patients, growers and retailers raised concerns Friday about state officials’ plans for expanding the medical program next year, including how they intend to dole out six coveted new dispensary licenses.
Gov. Gina Raimondo’s administration has proposed draft regulations for medical marijuana expansion, which passed the General Assembly earlier this year. Raimondo’s proposal is to use a lottery system to pull applicants for the new dispensaries — known as “compassion centers” — from six different zones in Rhode Island.
“Imagine having to pick out of a hat who plans to operate on you for heart surgery, or what medicine you’re about to take if you were at a pharmacy,” objected Alex Lavin, a cannabis businessman aiming to get one of the new compassion center licenses.
Lavin, the CEO of Growth Industries of New England, is listed in business filings as the director of Green Reservoir Inc., a Warwick-based company whose lawyer recently sent a letter to the Department of Business Regulation threatening to sue if the state didn’t start immediately taking applications for new compassion centers.
Lavin told WPRI 12 he is aiming to “create quality medicine at a cheaper rate.”
“Rhode Island’s medical cannabis industry should be based on experience, resource and the ability to create safe and effective medicines for those that are in need,” Lavin said. “The notion of having randomized lottery without merit is quite perplexing, to say the least.”
The state currently has three compassion centers in Warwick, Providence and Portsmouth. There are also dozens of licensed cultivators, many of whom have expressed interest in applying for one of the new compassion center licenses.
Medical marijuana patients at the hearing also criticized a new rule that would take away their ability to get cheaper medical cards from out of state, which can be easier to do than acquiring one in Rhode Island.
“I cannot work, I have a lot of medical bills to pay,” said Alexa Coffey, a medical patient who said she got her marijuana card from California. “Making these regulations would end my medical access to marijuana … it would actually make me very sick every day.”
The California cards can be acquired inexpensively online, while Rhode Island’s card requires doctor visits to renew the recommendation for medical marijuana. The visits typically aren’t covered by health insurance.
Rhode Island started allowing cardholders from any state to buy from the state’s marijuana dispensaries last year, prompting thousands of Rhode Island residents to get out-of-state cards. The new regulations would require that anyone using an out-of-state card also have a photo ID that shows residency in that state.
“If this goes through, I will be forced as a patient to seek black market,” Coffey said.
Karen Ballou, a licensed cultivator who said her son is a marijuana patient with a life-threatening illness, also asked the Department of Business Regulation not to implement to ID rule.
“I know some people may abuse the out-of-state cards, but what’s happening here, the regs are profiling,” Ballou said. “There are people out there that need the out-of-state cards.”
Norman Birenbaum, who was working his last day as the state’s cannabis regulator during the hearing, said the residency requirement ensures real medical cards are being used in Rhode Island.
“The compassion centers need to make sure that those cards are valid,” Birenbaum said. “So if you’re issuing a state card to someone who’s not a resident of that state, that card might not be valid, that compassion center might be subject to enforcement either by us, or the federal government.”
He also pointed out that patients who qualify for financial assistance like SSDI and Medicaid can get their application fees decreased.
Birenbaum, who is leaving Rhode Island for a yet-to-be-announced job in New York, said the goal of the lottery system is to avoid any “inside track” to a license.
“There are a lot of different interests here with a lot of different relationships,” Birenbaum said. “People that have already spent lots of money, people that have made assumptions over how this will happen.”
Rick McAuliffe, a lawyer representing the United Food and Commercial Workers and some cultivators, said he thought a point system would work better.
“We believe a point system would allow those companies who want to treat their workers well and stay in the community … to have more points,” McAuliffe said. “We want people who are women-owned and in the minority community to be involved as well.”
The new regulations also propose prohibiting the new compassion centers from growing their own cannabis, forcing them instead to buy from the existing cultivators. The cultivators would also be able to apply to be compassion centers, thus allowing them to grow for their own dispensary.
House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello said last month the new regulations may not reflect the intent of legislators, but has not elaborated. Senate President Dominick Ruggerio did, in a statement this week, indicating he was not on board with the proposed rule.
“The language in the statute is plain that new compassion centers are allowed to cultivate their product as well as purchase it,” Ruggerio said. “The new centers are being charged the same annual licensing fee as the three existing centers, which are allowed to cultivate. We look to the administration for a better understanding of their justification for limiting the cultivation provision. We are hopeful that this inconsistency with the law will be addressed as a result of the ongoing public comment period.”
The Department of Business Regulation is taking public comment until Dec. 21, after which the final regulations are expected to be released.