SCITUATE, R.I. (WPRI) — Ellen Lennox Smith rides a chair lift down the stairs to her basement, where she tends to plants that most of her neighbors would not find in their garden.
Smith’s 12 marijuana plants produce various strains of cannabis, with names like Blue Mystic and Pineapple Express, which she converts into oil and takes to help manage her pain from a connective tissue disease called Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome. She turned to the drug in 2007 to help manage her pain, after she reacted poorly to other pain medications like opiates.
The first time she tried cannabis, she said, “I literally had slept through the entire night, which was incredibly exciting.” She added, “We took our retirement money and put it into setting up a grow downstairs.”
Smith registered as a patient in Rhode Island’s then-fledgling medical marijuana program, when dispensaries were not yet open. A decade later, the program has exploded – with 19,104 patients and 2,119 caregivers, who are appointed by patients to grow marijuana.
But the number of licensed dispensaries – called compassion centers – has remained relatively low, with three centers located in Providence, Warwick and Portsmouth. Gov. Gina Raimondo is now proposing to expand that to 15 compassion centers as part of the 2018-19 budget plan she submitted to the General Assembly last week.
In addition to adding the 12 new centers, her proposal would add “acute pain” to the list of patient conditions that qualify them for medical marijuana, and would allow Massachusetts and Connecticut cardholders to buy marijuana in Rhode Island.
The expansion is projected to raise $5.1 million in revenue for the state, and would help close the budget hole caused by a mismatch between spending and expected revenue. The expansion is expected to raise $1.1 million in additional sales tax revenue from retail sales at the new compassion centers, $180,565 in additional tax revenue from new patients who qualify as having acute pain, and $248,157 in sales tax revenues from Massachusetts and Connecticut cardholders.
The addition of acute pain as an eligible condition is expected to add up to 16,000 patients, nearly doubling the number of cardholders.
Compassion centers also pay a 4% surcharge on purchases, along with licensing fees. Patients pay an annual fee of $50 to be a cardholder, and a $25 tag fee for each plant, which was added last year.
Norm Birenbaum, who oversees the marijuana program at the R.I. Department of Business Regulation, says the tags help law enforcement confirm that a home grower is not going over the plant limit. And he points out that patients on the SSI or SSDI programs are eligible for reduced application fees and tag fees.
But Smith, who is also a member of the state’s medical marijuana oversight commission, is perturbed by the costs.
“I don’t understand how it is you could even talk about making money off the most vulnerable people in the state,” she said. “It doesn’t make sense to me.” She opposes the sales tax levied on marijuana, which Rhode Island does not collect on other medications. (A spokesperson for the Department of Revenue said marijuana does not qualify as a prescription medication, which is exempt from the sales tax.)
Birenbaum says he’s optimistic the expansion could drive down the prices of medication, with increasing competition from more compassion centers. The goal is to have more home growers buy their cannabis from the centers, which he says are safer and more quality-controlled.
“Home grows can often be dangerous,” he said. “They’re not always compliant with building codes.” He also said marijuana at the dispensaries is tested for mold, mildew, pesticides and contaminants.
“Our goal here is to make it more accessible and more affordable,” Birenbaum said.
Smith said she’ll continue to grow her own marijuana, which she also grows as a caregiver for multiple other patients. While the costs of maintaining the operation are high – her electricity bill alone is $500 a month – she believes it’s still less expensive than buying from a compassion center.
Raimondo’s marijuana proposal will be vetted by the General Assembly in the coming months. Smith said she hopes lawmakers keep patients in mind.
“I just want them to remember we are real people, in need, that are using this for medical reasons,” she said. “And we need to not look at this as a money-maker. I find that, no offense, but I find that insulting.”An earlier version of this story cited a state spokesman who said that over-the-counter medications are exempt from the sales tax in Rhode Island. The spokesman has since clarified that over-the-counter medications have been taxed since 2011.