In 2006, Rhode Island legalized “medical marijuana” which meant that patients with cancer, AIDS, etc. could obtain cards that let them buy marijuana in one of 3 “compassion centers” around the state, the largest of which was the Thomas C. Slater dispensary in Providence. In 2019, there were 18,000 medical marijuana patients in the state.
Meanwhile, however, as part of the “War on Drugs” effort, Rhode Island had some of the strictest minimum sentencing requirements in the country, and possession of more than 5 kilograms resulted in a 20 year prison term, and fines of $25,000-$100,000. And, in 2020, the ACLU released a report showing that “Black people in Rhode Island are 3.3 times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana possession despite comparable marijuana usage rates among the two racial groups.”
In 2022 Rhode Island became the 14th state in the USA to legalize recreational marijuana, and on December 1, 2022, the 5 compassion centers in the state began to sell to adults over the age of 21. The Slater Center, in Providence, reported sales of $12 million in the first 5 months, and statewide, sales of recreational marijuana now top $7 million/month.
Also, as part of the legislation, a 3 member Cannabis Control Commission (CCC) was created, and it began its work this summer. (see ccc.ri.gov) It’s the CCC’s job to oversee the regulations and dole out the licenses for 28 additional recreational dispensaries in the 25 cities and towns that have voted to allow them. (Cities and towns receive the proceeds from a 3% local tax on marijuana sales from dispensaries located there. The state levies a 10% state excise tax plus the regular 7% RI sales tax)
In addition to the legalization of recreational marijuana sales and the creation of the CCC, Rhode Island’s Cannabis Act has attempted to address the disproportionately high incarceration rate’s on BIPOC and low income communities when marijuana was illegal. It called for all those with marijuana possession misdemeanors to have their records expunged, and to date, 23,000 people have been affected.
Marijuana is big business, and according to the American Bar Association, “marijuana licensing is now occurring in an environment where those authorized to participate in the regulated market are gaining access to a scarce, valuable resource. When a state prohibits some market participants—those with a record of drug convictions, say—or favors others—those who live in particular neighborhoods or share certain demographic characteristics—it helps determine in a very concrete way who will succeed and who will fail in the burgeoning market. And given the disproportionate impact of the War on Drugs—a war that continues to be fought even as marijuana becomes big business—picking those winners and losers in a fair and equitable manner becomes all the more important.”
Rhode Island’s law, like that of many other states, focused on building a just and equitable cannabis industry making 12 of the 24 recreational licenses available to social equity and worker-owned cooperatives only. It remains to be seen just who gets these licenses. (see adjoining article) However, there are other ways that the business of marijuana plays out in Providence. For example, of 60 licensed marijuana cultivators, the growers who are allowed to grow marijuana and sell it to the retailers, 2 are located in Providence, Talaria and Blackstone Valley Group. And, for students interested in getting in on the ground floor, Johnson & Wales now offers a Bachelor of Science degree in Cannabis Entrepreneurship.
Deborah Schimberg is the Managing Editor of The Providence Eye.