RI enlists former Colorado marijuana czar to help implement legal cannabis

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Andrew Freedman describes his new consulting gig with the state of Rhode Island as mostly helping with “boring, technical nerdy stuff.” But the topic he’s an expert on is anything but boring.

Freedman is known as the nation’s first state “marijuana czar,” though his actual title in Colorado was Director of Marijuana Coordination, overseeing the state’s then-infant legal marijuana program from 2014 to 2017.

Now, Freedman’s consulting firm has been hired by the Raimondo administration to help possibly implement recreational marijuana in Rhode Island, and make updates to the existing medical marijuana program. His contract, which began Jan. 10, says the firm Freedman & Koski will be paid $90,000 in 2019.

Eyewitness News sat down with Freedman after he met with officials in Rhode Island this week, as lawmakers hear testimony on the governor’s budget article that would tax and regulate recreational cannabis.

Freedman says he didn’t help write the bill, which he describes as “the best bill in the nation,” but he’s helping sort out the details of regulation from testing protocols to licensing.

He insists that despite making his living consulting with the governments of states, cities and one country (Canada) on marijuana legalization, he doesn’t have a stance for or against it. He also says he takes no money from the cannabis industry.

He also says he’s using his experience in Colorado, including mistakes that were made, to help Rhode Island.

One of the mistakes he identified was underestimating how much the black market would continue to thrive once retail stores opened in 2014, especially when it came to selling legally-grown Colorado cannabis in states where the drug is banned.

He said the illicit market is part of the reason he agrees with the governor’s decision to ban home growing for recreational use in her proposal, and cut down the medical home growing plant limit from 12 to six.

“People were using the home grow system for the purpose of out-of-state diversion,” Freedman said of the Colorado program. “And essentially what was happening is tens of thousands of dollars of product would be in somebody’s house, and even if that person was well-intentioned with it, there’d be robberies. There’s just no way to keep a community safe with that much valuable product in somebody’s basement.”

Marijuana policy advocates strongly believe they should be able to grow the plant at home if possession is legalized, and Freedman said he gets the most “hate mail” on this subject.

“It’s legal to have a bottle of vodka, it’s not legal to make it in your bathtub,” Freedman said. 

When marijuana shops opened in Colorado, headlines emerged about adults and children being hospitalized after eating edibles like cookies or brownies, which can affect the body differently than smoking marijuana.

“That was definitely a lesson learned that Colorado went through for the benefit of the rest of the country,” Freedman said. “What we didn’t understand was that this would be an entirely new population of naive users that hadn’t used marijuana or cannabis for a long time, or never used it. And they would try with edibles before they tried with anything else. Edibles can have a pretty intense reaction with some people.”

Colorado responded by tightening regulations around edibles. Rhode Island’s proposed legislation also tightly controls edibles, banning kid-friendly shapes and packaging like gummy bears. Retail license holders would be required to have their edible products approved by the new Office of Cannabis Regulation, and edibles would be limited to 5 milligrams of THC per serving.

Freedman said part of his job for Rhode Island is taking a “fresh look” at the legal code and helping update regulations. He also said Rhode Island needs to start testing cannabis products, a process that is already underway. 

Norman Birenbaum, a policy director at the state’s Department of Business Regulation, says the state is still working to get product testing up and running.

He said the Department of Health’s testing regulations went into effect in 2018, and the department is currently licensing labs to do random sampling.

A hearing is taking place on Raimondo’s marijuana legalization plan in the House Finance Committee Wednesday night.

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

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