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Speaker, Senate President aim to block marijuana ‘zones,’ let new dispensaries grow

Politics

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Senate President Dominick Ruggerio and House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello introduced medical marijuana legislation Wednesday aimed at blocking some of Gov. Gina Raimondo’s new proposals, including using “zones” to select new marijuana dispensaries.

The legislation filed in the House and Senate would bar the Raimondo administration from limiting the six new dispensaries, known as compassion centers, to certain geographical areas. It would also make it clear that state regulators cannot stop those compassion centers from growing their own cannabis.

The bill would also repeal the legislative “veto” over the Department of Business Regulation or Department of Health’s marijuana regulations, which is currently the subject of a lawsuit filed by Raimondo against Mattiello and Ruggerio last year.

“We are glad our lawsuit got the attention of the General Assembly leaders,” Raimondo’s press secretary Josh Block said in a statement Wednesday night. “The Governor’s priority is ensuring a transparent process with a level playing field that guarantees equitable access for businesses and patients across Rhode Island. We look forward to reviewing the broader changes proposed today by the General Assembly.”

Ruggerio argued the Raimondo administration’s regulations were an attempt at an “end-run” around the legislature, even as she accused the General Assembly of violating separation of powers.

“Our bill will put an end to all of it, making it clear where legislators have set the parameters, and letting the regulators regulate within them,” Ruggerio said.

Raimondo’s regulations, released in November, proposed a lottery system for the six new compassion centers approved by lawmakers last year. Her plan includes six geographical zones around the state, and proposes randomly picking one compassion center applicant from each zone.

Raimondo said the proposal is aimed at blocking any “special deals” to get the coveted and lucrative licenses. But prospective compassion center applicants argue the selection process should be based on merit.

The new bill, which will be considered by the House and Senate Judiciary Committees, does not address the concept of a lottery system.

In a statement, Mattiello said the regulations “represent a blatant overreach by the executive branch. Our bill clarifies the regulatory powers granted to the executive branch regarding the expansion of compassion center licenses.”

The Rhode Island Cannabis Association, which represents cultivators, issued a statement expressing “disappointment and dismay” at the new legislation, because it allows for unlimited growing by the compassion centers. The state’s 51 licensed cultivators are only allowed to sell to the compassion centers.

“It is well established that the existing licensed cultivator footprint in the State is well in excess of the patient demand,” RICA President Katie Sokol Ratkiewicz said in a statement. “It is confounding that the General Assembly would allow for unlimited cultivation, yet suggest that they would not consider a recreational marijuana bill in this session.”

“This expansion will only put small businesses out, bring ‘Big Cannabis’ in and contribute to the black market in the state,” Sokol Ratkiewicz added.

The Department of Business Regulation has been working on finalizing the new regulations after a public comment period ended in December. The proposed rules also aim to tamp down on home-grown medical marijuana, by limiting new “registered caregivers” to growing for just one patient.

Mattiello and Ruggerio’s bill would remove that provision, keeping the limit at five patients per caregiver.

Raimondo has said the goal of reducing the home growing is to stop marijuana from entering the black market. With less home-grown cannabis available, patients would have to purchase their medicine at one of the dispensaries, currently open in Providence, Portsmouth and Warwick.

She also is expected to propose recreational marijuana legalization in her budget proposal next week, which Mattiello and Ruggerio have already said they don’t support passing this year.

Watch our latest 12 on 12 Digital Original, the Business of Cannabis.

Steph Machado (smachado@wpri.com) covers Providence, politics and more for WPRI 12. Follow her on Twitter and on Facebook

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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