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Licensed RI marijuana cultivator charged with running illegal side operation

Target 12

CRANSTON, R.I. (WPRI) — As a part-owner of a licensed cultivation facility in Warwick, Antonio Barone has been an active member of Rhode Island’s growing legal marijuana industry. 

But Cranston Police claim the 36-year-old cultivator had an illegal business on the side, too. Barone was arrested last month, accused of operating a marijuana grow in a garage bay on Libera Street.

According to a Cranston Police affidavit filed in Kent County District Court, an officer discovered the grow operation in January after noticing an open garage door after the business in the unit was closed for the night. The officer approached, smelled marijuana and saw the bright lights emanating from a rear room in the storage unit. 

When police returned with a search warrant, they found 70 pounds of processed marijuana, 40 plants and a “significant amount of marijuana grow equipment,” according to the affidavit.

The owner of the unit told police he was renting the space to Barone, who had claimed what he was doing was legal, the police report says.

Barone was charged with a felony count of possession of marijuana with intent to deliver. Cranston Police Chief Michael Winquist said the owner of the property was cleared of any wrongdoing.

Reached by phone, Barone declined to comment on the ongoing criminal case. But he confirmed he is no longer affiliated with the Rhode Island Cannabis Association, a professional organization of cultivators where he was an active member.

His attorney, John M. Cicilline, said Barone denies any criminal wrongdoing.

“I believe that at the end of the day Mr. Barone will be exonerated of the charges,” Cicilline said Friday. “I believe his name will be cleared.”

He declined to elaborate on who might’ve been running the illegal grow operation if it wasn’t Barone, citing the ongoing criminal proceedings.

Barone is listed as a part-owner of IDBP, LLC, a marijuana cultivation facility in Warwick that is known as Rhode Island’s Finest Gardens. That business is licensed by the R.I. Department of Business Regulation (DBR), which tightly controls, regulates and monitors legal grow operations.

Target 12 received a tour from Barone and another owner of the licensed Warwick facility in January 2020, while reporting a story about cultivators who were outraged by a newly filed bill in the General Assembly they feared would shutter their businesses.

But the alleged side business in Cranston was not licensed or authorized by DBR.

Brian Hodge, a spokesperson for DBR, said IDBP has updated its filings with the state to indicate Barone is suspended from the cultivation business, pending the criminal proceedings.

Domenic Passarella, another owner of the Warwick cultivation facility, said the alleged illegal operation in Cranston was not connected to their business, which has been licensed since 2017.

“The allegations do not include or involve the operations of our state licensed medical marijuana cultivation,” Passarella said in an email. “IDBP, LLC remains in compliance with all state regulations.”

Winquist confirmed that the investigation found “no indication of anyone else being involved.” 

The chief also said Barone declined to be interviewed by police. 

While there are more than 60 licensed cultivators growing medical marijuana legally in Rhode Island, their ability to sell their product is currently extremely limited. The growers cannot sell cannabis to the general public or across state lines, leaving them with just three Rhode Island medical marijuana dispensaries as customers. Those dispensaries also grow their own cannabis.

But the market is poised to soon expand rapidly. This year the state plans to license six new medical dispensaries — known in Rhode Island as compassion centers — and Gov. Dan McKee has proposed a recreational cannabis program in his recently released budget proposal.

R.I. Senate leaders have also proposed to legalize marijuana this year. If that happens, the cultivators could have a large market of clients by next year.

Even if recreational marijuana is legalized in Rhode Island, a large unregistered grow such as is alleged in this case would remain illegal under the proposals currently being considered; home-growing, if allowed, would be capped at a small number of plants for personal use.

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

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