Pot Politics: Who should have the final say in RI cannabis regulations?

There were significant changes made to RI cannabis policy in last year’s budget submitted by Governor Gina Raimondo, involving both the medical marijuana program and the newly legalized hemp regulations. The House Finance Committee also added a provision to the state budget that would require all new cannabis regulations to be “subject to approval by the general assembly prior to enactment.”

At first glance, this small addition could be overlooked as a benign attempt to bring more transparency to the cannabis regulatory process, and that’s exactly what house leaders claim it was, citing concerns about the administration creating cannabis laws without proper oversight. Regulatory watchdog Common Cause RI and others, however, argue that this provision also would allow companies or other stakeholders to influence legislators through lobbying, campaign donations and the like, and create a de-facto legislative veto.

We already know that the existing medical marijuana dispensaries spend a lot of money on lobbyists to try to influence state regulatory policy — that’s not news. So why is this coming up now, if these changes were made and approved back in June? Last week, it was revealed that Speaker of the House Nicholas Mattiello’s deputy chief of staff, 29-year-old Grant Pilkington, is part owner of Rhode Island hemp license holder American Standard Hemp. Apart from being an obvious conflict of interest, some are concerned that an Ethics Code violation could have occurred if Pilkington was involved in drafting or making changes to the Hemp Growth Act last year.

On Monday, October21, Speaker Mattiello agreed to pull back the legislative veto provision and said he will amend the law to remove it when the next legislative session begins in January. His office claims that Mattiello had no idea that Pilkington was involved in the hemp company and that he only served an “administrative function” and played “no role in the legislative process.” Executive director of Common Cause RI, John Marion, wants them to prove it. If Pilkington wasn’t involved, who was? Everyone knows that a lot of political decisions are made behind closed doors in Rhode Island, but if house leaders want more transparency, they should be willing to offer it themselves.

As if this all wasn’t shady enough, records show that American Standard Hemp includes more principal players who also happen to be involved with state politics, including two registered state house lobbyists. One of the two, Matt Jerzyk, Mattiello’s former lawyer and a lobbyist for Bank of America, Uber and Twin River, has been implicated in the ongoing grand jury investigation into the fraudulent endorsement mailer that helped secure Mattiello’s re-election in 2016. Well-known Rhode Island turf company (and another hemp license holder) SODCO, led by former Republican representative Dawson Hodgson, is listed as a “key partner” on American Standard Hemp’s license through the Department of Business Regulation.

Despite the Speaker’s apparent willingness to back down on the legislative veto, Governor Gina Raimondo moved forward on Tuesday to file a lawsuit against the RI General Assembly, the first of its kind in at least 25 years, in an effort to get a superior court judge to rule the provision as unconstitutional under the 2004 Separation of Powers amendment to the RI Constitution. According to the administration, the governor wants to “let people know that Rhode Island is open for business, everyone has a chance to compete and it’s just not for the politically connected.” Hear, hear, Gina — but actions speak louder than words. Let’s see those promises reflected in the cannabis regulations that come out in next year’s budget proposal.

The fact is, there already exists a Legislative Oversight Committee of the Medical Marijuana Act, charged with overseeing the program and advising lawmakers on issues and proposed changes, but it has been largely inactive over the years. If legislators, the governor’s administration and the public all want more transparency in our democracy, especially when it comes to cannabis regulation, we should start by using the framework we already have in place. The bottom line is that the people of Rhode Island should have the final say in how we regulate cannabis as a state, especially with a legacy of corruption at the State House that persists to this day. Because Rhode Island has no public ballot initiative process, we the people have no choice but to advocate directly to lawmakers for the type of cannabis policies that we want to see. Who is more willing to listen and work with us — the legislature, or the governor’s administration — remains to be seen. 

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