While two proposals to legalize recreational marijuana both envision retail stores opening next spring, chances are only the state’s medical marijuana dispensaries would be ready by then to add adult-use cannabis to their shelves, lawmakers say.
With the legislative clock ticking, complex elements of both the governor’s plan and the Senate leadership’s proposal are still in discussions.
For instance, the Senate plan calls for creation of an entirely new Cannabis Control Commission, with a process set aside for appointing members once the bill is passed. And cities and towns have raised concerns about wanting more time than the governor’s plan offers to decide whether to host such stores.
Then there is the matter of “social equity”: what financial incentives the state will offer people of color who want to enter the lucrative industry.
Advocates argue that communities of color disproportionally hurt by decades of marijuana criminalization deserve help raising capital and to have a percentage of new retail licenses reserved for them. And they say neither bill goes far enough with those kinds of “racial and economic justice” initiatives.
On Thursday outside the State House, Daniel Denvir, a spokesman for the Reclaim RI coalition, said any legalization plan should set aside 50% of all retail store licenses for social-equity applicants.
Such a provision would match similar measures taken in New York when in March it became the 15th state to pass recreational marijuana.
Social-equity applicants in Rhode Island “must be given a runway to get their businesses up and running before other well-funded individuals and corporations,” said Tyler Brown, another a spokesman with Reclaim RI.
Therefore the advocates say no new cultivator or retail store licenses should be issued prior to July 2023 unless applicants are qualified as social-equity candidates or are already licensed under the medical marijuana program, such as the state’s three existing dispensaries and the six newly proposed ones.
But Sen. Josh Miller, one of the sponsors of the Senate’s proposal, said it’s too early to be talking about specifics like the percentage of store licenses reserved for social equity.
With negotiations just starting on the two legalization proposals – and House members also now considering a bill of their own – “We don’t want to put up any barriers” to any compromise “on what we think is a good proposal,” the Cranston Democrat said.
The two legislative proposals now on the table differ in several ways.
The governor’s plan calls for 75 retail marijuana stores rolled out over three years: 25 stores licensed each year through a state-run lottery.
MIller’s bill could have the new Cannabis Control Commission potentially licensing up to 150 stores, by some estimates. But getting such a commission up and running will take some time, Miller says.
The system is mirrored on the cannabis commission in Massachusetts, which took more than 16 months to begin operation once Bay State voters approved recreational marijuana use in 2016.
But Miller said it was certainly feasible that Rhode Island’s medical marijuana dispensaries would be in position to flip the switch to selling recreational marijuana by next spring.
“All the rules and regulations for them are already in place,” Miller said, “and that would give them a head start.”
That includes the six proposed new medical dispensaries.
In December, 28 marijuana companies, many with marijuana-growing affiliations in other states – submitted applications with the Department of Business Regulation in the hopes of qualifying for a lottery that would pick the license winners for the new regional dispensaries.
The DBR says it still plans to hold a lottery this spring to award the winners of those six licenses even though it received no bids from outside companies to design and run such a lottery.
Rep. Scott Slater on Thursday agreed with Miller that there was still ample time for those new medical marijuana dispensaries to be up and running by next spring and could have some of their business selling recreational cannabis as well.
The applicants for those dispensaries have already submitted plans that include conditional local zoning approval and financial backing, said Slater. “Anyone in that batch would be ready to go easily,” said the Providence Democrat.
“So you could have at least nine retail stores at the dispensaries up and running” by spring, Slater said, “while the rest of the program is rolled out more slowly.”