PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Gov. Gina Raimondo announced Tuesday she has filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of lawmakers’ effort to exercise a veto over medical marijuana and hemp regulations.
The measure, added to the state budget in June by House leaders, has been criticized by Raimondo and others as a violation of separation of powers. House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello has backtracked on the issue in recent days, announcing he will repeal the law next year, after it emerged one of the speaker’s top aides is an investor in a hemp business.
Raimondo, a second-term Democrat, described the law as “a clear violation of separation of powers,” referring to the 2004 state constitutional amendment that drew bright lines between the powers of the executive and legislative branches in a bid to curb the General Assembly’s influence.
“Medical marijuana is a new and growing industry, and we have a responsibility to regulate it in a way that’s open, transparent, and fair for businesses and consumers,” she said. “We can’t go back to the old way of doing things, when business decisions were made through inside deals and behind-the-scenes influence.”
The Raimondo administration is currently planning to use a lottery system to award the additional licenses for medical marijuana dispensaries that lawmakers authorized earlier this year.
John Marion, executive director of good-government group Common Cause Rhode Island, praised the governor for “taking decisive action to defend separation of powers.”
“Rhode Islanders waited more than two centuries for there to be separation of powers in our constitution and protecting that historic reform is of paramount importance,” he said.
The nine-page court filing, submitted Tuesday morning in R.I. Superior Court, warns that the new law’s provisions “give unchecked control to the Legislature over hemp and medical marijuana rulemaking.” While a state agency must “prepare a comprehensive, on-the-record, rationale supporting each regulation, including public input,” it notes, lawmakers would not.
The suit asks for a preliminary injunction to block the new requirement.
In a statement, Mattiello and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio suggested Raimondo is grandstanding.
“This is an unnecessary expense by the governor of state taxpayers’ dollars and judicial resources because the General Assembly leadership has already indicated that legislation will be introduced in January to remove this provision in the law,” they said.
But Josh Block, a spokesperson for Raimondo, rejected that idea. “The longer we have to wait, the more jobs and revenue we are leaving on the table,” he said.
“If the speaker wants to change the law now, he can stipulate with the court that he agrees this is a violation of separation of powers, or he could call for a special session,” Block said. “But waiting until next year and taking the speaker at his word that he intends to bring the issue before the General Assembly once again is not an acceptable solution to a constitutional violation.”
Speaking to reporters later Tuesday, Raimondo said the provision was “snuck into the budget,” and she raised the specter of Fall River Mayor Jasiel Correia, who is under indictment for allegedly soliciting bribes from marijuana vendors seeking to do business in his city.
“The medical marijuana business is a new industry, it’s a growing industry, it’s an opportunity for Rhode Island — it’s an opportunity to create revenue and create jobs,” she said. “But it’s also an opportunity for corruption. Anytime the state is passing out licenses, this state or any other state, it’s an opportunity for corruption.”
“You just flagged what happened in Fall River,” she added. “None of that will happen here. And that’s why I feel so strongly about this.”
Mattiello spokesperson Larry Berman had previously confirmed Monday, before the governor’s legal action, that the speaker planned to repeal the law in January. He said the House instead will convene hearings about marijuana policy under the auspices of the House Oversight Committee.
“The General Assembly wanted to ensure that the regulatory process would be fair, open and transparent to everyone and deemed that additional oversight would accomplish this. However, the governor has strongly objected,” Berman said.
“As a result, our House legal counsel has already communicated with the governor’s legal counsel the intent to pass legislation in January to reverse that provision in the law,” he said. “The House intends to have discussions in the near future with the Senate.”
That Oversight Committee’s clerk is Grant Pilkington, the top Mattiello aide recently revealed to be an investor in a hemp business along with State House lobbyists, Berman confirmed last week.
Asked whether Pilkington will recuse himself from serving as clerk for the oversight hearings, Berman said, “All House clerk assignments for the 2020 session are being evaluated and will be determined in January.”
Ted Nesi (firstname.lastname@example.org) 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
Kim Kalunian contributed to this report.