Medical Marijuana Update: The Long-Awaited Lottery

We’re finally here folks, the moment you’ve all been waiting for – and I seriously hope none of you were holding your breath. 

It’s been two and a half long years since a major expansion of the medical marijuana program was approved, and almost a full year since the lottery was expected to take place, but Rhode Island finally has six new compassion centers! 

Oh wait, no, sorry, that’s five new centers – as it turns out, all is still not said and done. If you’ve been following along with the lottery to expand retail access to medical marijuana in our state, you know it’s been a really long, drawn-out train wreck in super slow motion. 

For laughs and embarrassment, let’s take a look at how it all went down, what took so long, and who stands to benefit.

Why do a lottery to begin with? 

When deciding amongst the qualified applicants (whatever that means), how the state attempted to ensure a fair, unbiased selection process was critical. Proponents of the lottery argued that it was a more equitable process than the typical merit-based selection method, while those opposed said that “leaving it all to chance” could be risky business when it comes to the health and safety of medical marijuana patients in RI. 

Among the seventy plus licensed cultivators in RI, many of whom applied for one of the coveted new retail licenses, opinions lay on both sides of the fence. 

Unsurprisingly, some are now bitter at losing their chance at the first green rush to hit RI since medical marijuana was legalized back in 2006. 

Many others, even some of those who didn’t get lucky in the lottery, are welcoming the changes, because none of the new dispensaries will be permitted to cultivate their own cannabis, thereby increasing the pool of potential buyers for the existing cultivators’ product nearly threefold.

This whole lottery thing started when former Governor Raimondo insisted on moving forward with the process, much to the chagrin of lawmakers, who were used to getting their way and wanted to manipulate… er, have a say in … the selection. 

Gina’s goal, and I can’t fault her for it, was to create an appearance of fairness in the process, sans the typical RI political cronyism we’ve come to expect from Smith Hill. 

After literal years of delays due to issues with the company contracted to run the lottery (lowest bidder, most likely — typical RI), disqualifications, appeals, and the like, the state took matters into its own hands and decided to conduct the lottery itself.  So it’s fitting that after all this, the conclusion of the lottery saga (for now) was just as much, if not more so, about creating the appearance of an unbiased selection process.

So, at 10am on a Fridayin late October, live streamed on Zoom for all to witness: 

  • One clear acrylic tumbler borrowed from Twin River Casino, an apparent symbol of the state’s commitment to transparency throughout the process.
  • 23 bouncing yellow plastic RI Lottery balls, each representing a “qualified” company. 
  • Two men of great power and responsibility, standing sheepishly at the helm of the ship they have been desperately trying to keep afloat. 
  • One (an FBI agent!) wears a pale short sleeved button-up and a blindfold, looking like a math teacher ready to smash a pinata
  • And both seem acutely aware of the seriousness of their duty, despite the absolute joke of a process. 

I wasn’t in the room, but I can only imagine the high fives and bro hugs shared by the lucky winners and their lawyers. 

Now that they’ve received their preliminary licenses, they have nine months to meet the requirements for a final license and open their doors – AKA blow any money they have left to make sure that the wheels don’t fall off this close to the finish line. 

Each company had invested $10,000 just for the application fee. Then add on the costs of real estate, legal fees, and everything else that must be done to appear on paper as a “qualified” candidate. One company (a multi-state operator out of Massachusetts, no surprise there) submitted three separate applications! And that was all just to get in the door

The winners get to kick back … er, pay … $500,000 PER YEAR in licensing fees to the state. This pay-to-play scenario is not only the highest in the nation, but an impossible barrier to entry for any RI entrepreneur who doesn’t have significant financial backing.

That kind of money wrecked any chance of awarding licenses that prioritized socioeconomic equity, small business support, and reparative justice for those harmed by the war on cannabis.

We are going to see large, corporate, multi-state operators coming into RI to take advantage of both our insatiable demand for marijuana and our status as an “island of prohibition” among the rest of the New England states that have already moved to legalize cannabis for recreational use. 

I suppose we can be grateful that the nearly 20,000 medical marijuana patients in Rhode Island, plus the 18,000 out-of-state patients who rely on our medical program, will now have more than three options when purchasing their medicine. Not that this change will even begin to address the accessibility issues that patients face when it comes to medical marijuana. But that’s another topic for another day… For now, we’ll watch the winners of THC Bingo unfurl their business plans over the coming year.

Cannabis Gift Guide 2021: For Those On-the-Go

Whether your upcoming travel plans include heading to Grandma’s house for the holidays, hiking in the wintery woods, or finally getting on a plane again, here’s hoping this winter will offer the “booster” that we need, so more Americans can continue to maintain the go-go-go lifestyles we so love to hate. In that festive spirit, I’ve put together a gift guide for the cannabis lover in your life that is always on the move – clever, affordable, and convenient ways to take your ganja on the go, so you can “stay grinding” in style. 

Green Jay Rechargeable Windproof Electric Lighter – $20

I mean, it’s all in the name, isn’t it? This little device may look like it came out of a galaxy far away, but it just may be the ticket to a winter free from cold, wet, dead lighters. Safe, subtle, and completely wind-proof, this lighter is fossil fuel-free and can last up to 30 hours before recharging.

Verde Grinder Card – $20

Leave the bulky, sticky metal grinder at home, and slip this sleek little number into your wallet for convenient and effective herb grinding on-the-go. You may be skeptical at first (I know I was), but at only $20, you’ll be amazed at how well it does the job!

Stay On the Grass” Water Bottle – $21

Black woman-owned business Jane Parade always nails it with unique cannabis-themed gifts, and this 16oz Nalgene is no exception — a great choice for the subtle stoner in your life who takes their hydration seriously. Or, who really needs to start carrying a reusable water bottle…

The Battpack by Octave – $79

Is it a universal charger? A travel safe? It’s BATTPACK! This multitasker combines the convenience of a portable charger with the security of a secret stash container accessed by an “adult-proof” button. Now you can charge your device and store your valuables in one safe spot, and it even includes a sleek stainless steel magnetic tray for a clean, contained surface for… whatever….

PenSimple – $59.99

Another multitasker, PenSimple is advertised as “a revolutionary herb grinder and portable storage vault” that allows you to grind, store, and dispense up to 3 grams of ground cannabis (or any other herb, like dried basil) on-the-go. In a world where clean hands are more important than ever, I can definitely see the appeal of a tool like this.

Higher Standards x Revelry Companion – $55

Stylish and sturdy, this black-on-black fanny pack is durable, water-resistant and odor absorbing, complete with a carbon filtration system and secret stash pocket to keep it discrete. Form meets function to make the perfect gift for your cannabis-loving friend who rocks a fanny pack.

Now You’re Cooking With Gas: Cannabis oil infusion made easy

If you’re curious about making your own cannabis products in your kitchen, this guide will help you understand the basics of cannabis oil infusion, and how you can mix up the medicine to create your own custom concoctions at home. 

Cannabinoids (the powerful plant compounds found in cannabis, like THC and CBD) are fat-soluble, so infusing oils with cannabis is a great way to capture the beneficial compounds into a more usable form. Oil infused with cannabis can be used in place of butter or regular cooking oil in any recipe, or you can create your own topical remedy or cannabis tincture. Ingesting cannabis in food or tincture form can be important for those who are unable to smoke or vaporize marijuana, and the effects typically last longer at smaller doses.

Start with high quality source material: Although most people think of edibles as another way of accessing the psychoactive effects of cannabis, THC is not the only compound worthy of extracting from the cannabis plant. It is now easier than ever to find and purchase high-quality CBD flower to use in your kitchen. You can also purchase THC dominant flower or a hybrid strain at a compassion center or recreational dispensary, or you can use a cannabis extract, like RSO (Rick Simpson Oil), as your starting material. Whatever raw material you choose, be sure that it is trusted, tested, and organically produced if possible. If you are able to access the test results for your starting material, that will make calculating your dosage much easier, but you can also estimate based on the strain information. If you know a grower, infusing their leftover trimmings can make good use of otherwise wasted material, but it will likely create products of a lower dosage, due to the relative lack of beneficial compounds as compared to flower. On the contrary, using a more concentrated material like shake, kief, or other extracts can result in a stronger final product.

Choose your carrier oil: A “carrier oil” is the base oil into which plant material can be infused. For decades, butter seemed to be the carrier oil of choice for making edibles, but as we learn more about cannabis chemistry and other oil options become more readily available, it becomes important to choose your carrier oil based on your needs and preferences. Besides butter, popular carrier oils include olive oil, hemp seed oil, avocado oil, or grapeseed oil – although some have much lower smoke points than others (AKA easy to burn while infusing), and not all are suitable for ingestion. You can use any oil you like, but be sure to consider factors like flavor, melting point, and smoke point when choosing a carrier oil. In my opinion, the very best carrier oil to infuse with cannabis has got to be coconut oil. 

Why coconut oil?: Increasingly popular in recent years due to its plant-based nature, health benefits, and yummy flavor, coconut oil is also a prime candidate for cannabis infusion on a molecular level. This is because it is one of the oils with the highest saturated fat content (about 60-80%, compared with about 20% in olive oil), which means there are plenty of binding sites for those fat-soluble compounds I mentioned earlier. Since cannabinoids are lipophilic (fat-loving) in nature, coconut oil is able to retain more of the beneficial plant compounds per serving, which increases the absorption rate upon consumption. Like butter, coconut oil stores well and remains solid at room temperature (although not at this time of year!), and it performs similarly to butter in extraction and in recipes. For a version of coconut oil that remains liquid at all temperatures, MCT oil (fractionated coconut oil) is a great choice. MCT, or medium chain triglycerides, are a type of saturated fat extracted from coconuts that are rapidly digested and absorbed by the body, and enjoyed by many as a health supplement on it’s own. With MCT oil, you get all the benefits of using coconut oil as a carrier but in a convenient liquid form with little to no flavor, making it an ideal carrier oil for many applications.

Decarboxylation — what it is and how to do it: Although the word may look intimidating, “decarbing” is the simple and necessary process of activating the cannabinoids present in the material, so that it can be processed by the body and provide the desired effects. In the context of smoking or vaporizing THC or CBD flower, the heat from the flame or vape oven causes decarboxylation to occur prior to inhalation, but in creating edibles or topicals, we usually need to decarb the plant material in order to infuse it properly (except if using a concentrate like RSO as your starting material, as most extracts are already activated and can be infused directly into oil).

To decarboxylate at home, grind or break up the flower into roughly equal pieces (use a food processor or coffee grinder if you like, but it may get sticky). Spread evenly on a sheet pan lined with aluminum foil, and cover with more foil to keep the more volatile plant compounds, like terpenes, from evaporating during the process. Bake at 240ºF for 40 or 90 minutes (for THC-dominant and CBD flower, respectively), and leave covered to cool after removing from the oven – the material should look golden brown in color and have a fragrant aroma when complete. Now, you are ready to infuse!

How to infuse: I should mention – and anyone who has ever stunk up their parents’ kitchen attempting to make “special brownies” will already know this – that the process of decarboxylation and infusino can be aromatic, to say the least. For convenience, there are tools you can use to fully decarb and make infusions, all within a discreet and easy-to-use countertop machine – the Nova by Ardent Cannabis (which I own and recommend, although the volume capacity is somewhat small) or the Levo are great options for those who need to be tactful about their infusion, or expect to be making frequent batches. Additionally, if you can’t decarb at all, don’t worry – you can always just infuse the oil for longer to activate the compounds during the infusion process, but be extra careful not to overcook your oil if you do this and be aware that a longer infusion time will typically result in a stronger cannabis flavor to your oil.

There are several methods for infusing oil at home. Listed below are the basic parameters for each, but you can also find detailed instructions online for each method:

  • Water Bath – Heat water in stock pot or slow cooker on high until it reaches 185ºF, then lower heat. Combine decarbed material and carrier oil in mason jars, and place jars in water bath, ensuring that water covers the top of jars. Infuse for 4 hours, then strain oil and pour into clean jars to cool.
  • Slow-Cooker – Combine decarbed material and carrier oil in slow-cooker and infuse on low for 4-6 hours, stirring occasionally. Strain oil and let cool. This method is probably the easiest, although it is less gentle than the water bath in terms of temperature control.
  • Double Boiler – Combine decarbed material and carrier oil in large glass bowl and heat 6-8 hours over slow-cooker or stock pot set to lowest heat, stirring occasionally. Strain infused oil and let cool.
  • Stove Top – Combine decarbed material and carrier oil in sauce pot and heat on lowest setting 2-3 hours, stirring frequently. This method is the fastest but also most likely to burn the oil or fry the flower material, which can decrease the overall potency/effectiveness of the final product.

Whichever method you choose, it’s a good idea to have a digital thermometer on hand to ensure that the oil never reaches 200ºF – 245°F (anything between 130 – 190ºF is ideal to maximize infusion without degrading the product). With any of the above methods, you can add a small amount of water to the mixture to help avoid burning. 

Once the infusion is complete, you will want to strain the infused oil using cheese cloth over a mesh strainer, but avoid squeezing every last bit of the oil out of the material if you don’t want your oil to take on a greenish hue, due to the presence of chlorophyll. You can also use a french press or a paper coffee filter and funnel to strain the oil, and the pulp can be saved to use in future recipes – smoothies, sauces, or salad dressings should all work well with cannabis pulp. Once your infused oil is complete, store it in a cool, dark, dry place, or stick it in the fridge or freezer for longer term storage.

Dosing: Accurately dosing your homemade cannabis products can be the trickiest part of the process. Luckily, there are some great edible dosage calculators online, but you will want to know the approximate potency of your strength material (% THC or % CBD), and the amount of material / carrier oil you will be using in your recipe (ex. 7g flower @ 15% THC in 2 cups of coconut oil). Using this example, you could calculate that your infused oil would have a total of 7,000mg THC x 0.15 =  1,050mg THC. Since the infusion process won’t result in 100% yield, you can make an assumption of around 75% yield, which would equal 787.5mg THC in the total volume of oil. If the infusion yields 1 cup of oil, that would result in a dosage of around 50mg THC / oz, or 25mg THC / tbsp.

Basic Cannabis Salve Recipe

Try making your own topicals with this easy salve formula – great for reducing inflammation, alleviating pain, and soothing painful or itchy skin conditions! 

  • 1 part beeswax
  • 4-5 parts oil
  • Optional – essential oils for scent/effect (ex. Lavender, peppermint)
  • Make it your own by adding other ingredients to increase efficacy (ex. arnica, aloe, menthol)

Taking the High Road: Tips for passing (joints) through the New England states this summer

I don’t know about you, but when it comes to vacationing in the summer months, I don’t feel the need to go very far from home. Of course there is a reason that so many tourists flock to our area in the summer months — loathe them though we may — and I, too, appreciate the natural beauty, outdoor recreation and convenience offered by traveling to nearby states during our short summer season here in New England. If you are like me (meaning you enjoy cannabis and are planning a weekend trip or two this summer), here are my best tips to keep your New England road trip safe, legal and just a little bit silly.

Know the Laws

Regardless of your road trip route, it is critical to understand your destination’s cannabis laws as well as those of states you will be passing through along the way. Luckily, almost every state in New England has legalized cannabis for adult use and possession, and even in those that haven’t yet (Hello, RI and NH!), medical marijuana and decriminalization laws make getting caught with cannabis much less dangerous than in years past. If you are a medical marijuana patient, be sure to bring your patient card with you, and if you happen to be traveling to a state with patient reciprocity laws (Maine or Rhode Island), you will be able to purchase from the medical dispensaries there. *Note: New Hampshire recognizes out-of-state patient cards when it comes to possession, but dispensaries are open to in-state patients only.

Remember that just because a state has legalized, that doesn’t mean that there will be dispensaries open for business when you arrive. It takes time to launch a legal cannabis market, so some recently legal states, such as New York and Connecticut, have yet to open doors on recreational dispensaries. Fortunately, in those states you can legally possess 3 oz and 1.5 oz respectively, so you can at least feel a little more comfortable traveling (or sitting in traffic) with cannabis in your vehicle.

To stay up-to-date with various state cannabis laws and ensure that you are within legal limits, do a little research before your trip (I recommend Marijuana Policy Project’s interactive state policy map), and plan accordingly. 

Pit Stops at Pot Shops

If you are driving through Massachusetts or Maine, you will likely see plenty of dispensaries along your route, and the recreational stores should be open to anyone who is 21+ (just don’t forget your ID, because these places are serious about carding). If you are traveling to a new area and want some help finding “pot stops” along the way, there are a couple of apps that I would recommend: Weedmaps provides a user-friendly map of dispensaries based on your location, and Leafly offers both a dispensary finder and a strain explorer tool, if you would like to explore your options beforehand. If you are still unsure about what to purchase, you can always ask the budtender at the dispensary for advice. It’s part of their job to educate and inform customers about the offerings on the menu. Lastly, keep in mind that most states have a strictly enforced purchase limit, which is probably for the best if you are traveling with cannabis, as you will want to keep your possessed amount within state legal limitations. 

Keep It Secret, Keep It Safe

While New England state laws are becoming more favorable for cannabis users, we can’t forget that it remains federally illegal to carry marijuana (a Schedule 1 substance, according to them) across state lines, even when traveling between legal states. Although I do believe that you would be unlikely to be charged with a federal crime while adhering to state law, it’s still best to play it safe when you have cannabis in your cargo. I would definitely avoid crossing international borders with any amount of marijuana, though, as that would be more likely to fall under federal jurisdiction. In general, keep your products secured and out of sight (in the trunk is best), and be especially cautious about keeping products locked up and out of reach when traveling with children or pets. Most state laws treat cannabis products similarly to an open container of alcohol, so keep that in mind when hitting the road.

Be a Good Driver

We should always obey traffic laws, obviously, but we should be extra sure to do so when traveling with cannabis. As a teenager, I learned this concept as “One Crime at a Time,” but even in this new age of legal cannabis, it’s best to not provide any possible reason for an interaction with law enforcement. So don’t speed, and avoid driving while partaking. It’s best to wait until your destination or plan a leisurely stop along the way, so you can actually relax and enjoy yourself. If you are traveling with friends, designate a sober driver or take turns on longer trips. Wherever you are, avoid smoking in public, and be mindful of the rules of your accommodations when it comes to being “4/20 friendly.” 

No matter your destination, the most important part of a road trip is the journey. We all work too much, so I hope that you can plan a good old fashioned New England getaway this summer. What a great opportunity to slow down, put on a dope playlist, take the scenic route and enjoy the ride! Just don’t forget the snacks.  

2021 Legislative Recap: What happened, and what’s next for cannabis in RI?

So here we are — the 2021 legislative session is over and we still don’t have legal cannabis in Rhode Island. Some really critical pieces of legislation were passed, and I heard members from both sides of the aisle expressing support for common sense measures that will do right by Rhode Islanders, including prioritizing racial/gender equity in the workplace and in public health spaces, supporting small businesses and embracing principles of harm reduction when it comes to drug use/misuse. There was a sense of understanding of the issues and a willingness to seek out novel solutions, and we have to be proud of what our elected officials were able to pass this session. The process of law-making is a slow one even in normal times, and many important measures can take years to come to fruition. Case in point: legalizing cannabis, an issue that, although it has been discussed at the State House every session for the better part of the last decade, we still haven’t been able to get passed.

When the session began, many predicted (again) that finally, this would be the year we would legalize adult-use cannabis in Rhode Island. After all, every one of our neighboring states and many others across the country have been legalizing over the last few years, like some sort of reverse manifest destiny domino line stretching from the West Coast all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. In addition to that “green wave,” changes in the RI legislative leadership and executive branch had legalization proponents hoping for a more favorable atmosphere at the State House, mostly because the conservative-Cranstonite-formerly-known-as-speaker-of-the-house would no longer be the major roadblock he had been for so many years.

What Happened?

It’s not news that RI politics is not very straightforward, and this session turned out to be just as messy, if not more so, than what we’ve seen in the past. Everyone wanted a hand in creating the legislation, but they didn’t collaborate with each other and with stakeholders, so we ended up with three very different and far-from-perfect legalization proposals. The governor’s proposal was seriously lacking, the Senate bill made an attempt but fell way short, and the last-minute House bill endeavored to present the best of both, with some additional improvements when it comes to social equity licensing and automatic expungement. (Check out our recent cannabis coverage for more details on the three proposals.)

It turns out that advocates were right about at least one thing when it came to this session. With Mattiello out of the way, S0568 sponsored by Senator Josh Miller was not only voted out of the senate judiciary committee, but was approved by the full senate on June 20, 2021 — a huge accomplishment, considering that the former speaker never even allowed the issue to be voted on in committee.

I didn’t feel the sense of joy that I thought I would at this milestone, particularly because amendments actually made the social equity provisions worse than before (and they weren’t very good to start with). I felt that familiar frustration from years past, as if decisions were being made behind closed doors, with only the richest and most powerful sitting at the table. I feared that the rules being written would leave a lot of Rhode Islanders in the lurch, and it didn’t sit right with me or the other citizen activists who had been working so hard to make sure that marginalized communities were included in the conversation.

What Now?

Although we came closer than ever before, legalization didn’t cross the finish line this legislative session, and it looks like the issue is heading for a special session in the fall. In the meantime, it is critical to keep pressuring lawmakers to do the right thing when it comes to cannabis equity. This is a conversation that will continue to happen post-legalization, and our legal cannabis policies will need to be improved over time regardless, but there are some elements that must be included from the beginning. We need to put our money where our mouths are, quite literally, when we say that we care about all Rhode Islanders. We need to consider the impact of our laws and regulations as well as our intentions, and we would be wise to look around (in virtually any direction, at this point) to see what has worked and what has failed in other states. Stay tuned for more updates!

Compromising on Cannabis: New House legalization bill aims to appease all

Much like our roads, the path to cannabis legalization in Rhode Island has been riddled with potholes and slowdowns for many years. Many proponents of legalization felt that 2021 would finally be the year for Rhode Island, thanks to changes in leadership at the State House and an overall appetite by most lawmakers to finally get it done. And yet, with the end of the legislative session quickly approaching, time may be running out to make it happen this year. Two separate legalization proposals (Budget Article 11 from the governor’s administration, and S0568 sponsored by Senator Josh Miller) were recently introduced, and both received significant pushback from legalization advocates, for whom neither proposal goes far enough to address the harms caused by the racist enforcement of cannabis prohibition over the years. With so many differing opinions attempting to influence how we legalize, progress seemed to stall over the last few weeks, and some were questioning whether it would still be possible to get legalization done this year.

Enter Representative Scott Slater, who submitted a third bill on Thursday that could be the key to reaching a compromise on legalization this session. Slater has long been known as a champion for cannabis policy reform at the state house, and his work on the state medical marijuana program and adult-use legalization over the years puts him in a good position to bridge the gap between the different stakeholders. He understands the complexities of legalization more than most lawmakers, and his history working on this issue has earned him the respect of advocates, patients and industry professionals alike.

Slater’s bill (H6370) attempts to blend the better parts of the two previous proposals, while addressing advocates’ demands for more substance when it comes to social equity. This approach seems to allow both for the state to move quickly toward adult-use sales (as early as this summer for the three existing compassion centers, Slater says), while leaving time and space for regulators to hammer out the finer details of licensing, regulating and taxing cannabis. Whether this eagerly awaited bill is the one that will usher our state into a new age of cannabis legalization remains to be seen, but here is a brief breakdown of some of the key social equity components of the bill:


Starting July 1, 2021, the Department of Business Regulation would be authorized to issue 15 retail licenses, nine of which would be reserved for the current and pending medical marijuana dispensaries in the state. Of the six new retail licenses, five would be allocated to social equity applicants, and one would be designated for a worker-owned cooperative — a model that activists assert is crucial to keeping the barriers to entry low enough to be inclusive. Thankfully, the six new licensees would not be subject to the absolutely egregious $500,000 licensing fee that has been imposed on the medical compassion centers up to this point, but that step is certainly not enough to ensure a truly equitable licensing strategy. More new retail and cultivation licenses wouldn’t be issued until at least 2025, which I assume is welcome news to Rhode Island licensed cultivators and dispensary license applicants, who have been eagerly awaiting a chance to supply the potential adult-use market after several years of struggling to survive a market where supply has outpaced the demand of our existing compassion centers.

Proponents of social equity legalization have asked for half of all licenses to be allocated for social equity applicants, and while we still have a ways to go to achieve that goal, it seems like Rep. Slater was trying his best to work within the existing circumstances in our state when it comes to cannabis licensing. That said, if we want to create an industry that is not just composed of the rich and powerful, it would be better to allow for more licenses to be issued right away, increase the number of licenses reserved for social equity applicants, and set up reasonable licensing fees so that more Rhode Island businesses have a chance to participate in the industry.

Automatic Expungement

Unlike the previous two legalization proposals we have seen this year, this legislation does include an automatic expungement process for “any person with a prior conviction for misdemeanor or felony possession of marijuana or a marijuana related offense that has been decriminalized.” This is certainly a step in the right direction for social equity advocates, who have prioritized automatic expungement as a non-negotiable component of any legalization plan put forth. However, it is unclear whether the limited criteria for expungement will go far enough to repair the long-lasting damage suffered by so many Rhode Islanders under the criminalization of cannabis, so we will have to keep a close eye on the details of how automatic expungement is implemented.

Community Reinvestment

If passed, H6370 would create a “Social Equity Fund,” financed by license and renewal fees, to help support social equity license applicants, which sounds great in theory, but definitely needs improvement if we value the impact of such a fund as much as the intent behind it. As written, the fund could be used to provide “interest-free loans to pay the application and annual licensing fee for individuals [and families] who have previously been disproportionately impacted by criminal enforcement of marijuana…and for those individuals who have resided in disproportionately impacted areas for at least five of the last 10 years.” While the expansion of the eligibility requirements to participate in the assistance program is welcome, I think we can do a whole lot better than just covering the cost of license fees that are already higher than they need to be. It would be great to see a social equity fund that provides grants, interest-free loans for start up and operating costs, small business assistance and mentorship, and other incentives for minority-owned local businesses to enter the cannabis industry.

Of course, there is a lot more to cannabis equity than just the above components, but it’s helpful to keep in mind that there are good and bad parts in most of the proposed legislation that moves through the general assembly. I highly doubt that any legalization bill passed will be perfect, so we should expect an ongoing process of improving state policies as we move forward with implementation. That being said, significant improvements can and should be made to the language in this bill in the above areas, as well as in regard to civil liberties, employment and housing protections, and how we should handle minors who are found to be in possession of cannabis. Whether we pass a legalization bill that meets the social equity standards of advocates this year, I am confident that we can pass something reasonable. At the very least we can all embark on the next leg of our legal cannabis journey with a deeper understanding of what matters most when it comes to legalization, and what is possible when we work together to keep moving forward. And next time someone claims that legalization is “inevitable” in Rhode Island or elsewhere, we should remember that none of this would be possible without the persistence, courage and tenacity of the concerned citizens who show up year after year to participate in the process of policy-making, and the lawmakers who are willing to listen and learn. If we manage to legalize this year, we have them to thank!

Collateral Consequences: Perspectives from those directly impacted by cannabis criminalization

It is imperative that those harmed by cannabis prohibition have a say when it comes to enacting policies that deal with automatic expungement, community reinvestment and civil protections for cannabis consumers. The Formerly Incarcerated Union of RI, which was co-founded on 2019 by directly impacted Rhode Islanders, works to empower and support people who have been directly impacted by the criminal injustice system. As a member organization of the Yes We Cannabis coalition, FIU elevates the voices and experiences of those impacted by the prohibition of cannabis here in Rhode Island.

“As a medical marijuana patient I have been made to feel like I am an irresponsible drug user and unfit parent by the state of Rhode Island. As a result of my medical patient status, I was forced to get letters from doctors, have my levels monitored, and required approval through the courts to have rights to my own child. This was over a year long process of “proving” myself, before I could have increased visits with my child after an abrupt traumatic family separation. 

“This discriminatory treatment had only gotten worse when my case was transferred to a new state worker. My status as a patient was again questioned and my parental rights were in further jeopardy to get my children back into my care. I had just earned unsupervised visits because reunification was about to happen. I had just got an apartment and had a perfect bedroom set up for him. In one week I went from three visits for eight hours with my child in the community, to being told I could only have one hour a week in an office being monitored, and for the simple fact that I was a medical marijuana patient. 

“I was treated differently based on my prescribed medicine. I was only allowed that one visit in an office before all visits were suspended and my child kept from his mother. My cries and calls went unanswered, and I faced a traumatic family separation — again. Five years after I faced this same threat from the state of taking my rights to parent my own children. I was discriminated against as a parent who was a medical marijuana patient.  I was made to feel I was an unfit parent. To present day, It has now been 7 months since I have seen my second child. I know this is a violation of my rights, but there is nowhere I can turn. 

“The pain of not seeing my children, how close we had gotten, and then having them ripped away from me and each other, all because of the demonization of my prescribed medicine, is unbearable. My eight year old knows he has a little brother but has never got to meet him. The mental anguish is a result of state inflicted trauma – trauma that not only I continue to endure, but trauma to my children as well.” – Raquel Baker

Cherie Cruz

“Back in 1993 I was impacted by the War on Drugs and incarcerated, and marijuana was one of those charges. My son was also incarcerated for a small amount of marijuana back in 2008-09. The criminalization does not stop with over policing and incarceration. The collateral consequences of a criminal record are long lasting. Rhode Islanders have spent decades with these barriers in place, barring them from housing, employment, education – all based on this failed War on Drugs, that left tens of thousands of Rhode Islanders out of a life here – not only themselves, but their children and their families. This is multigenerational trauma. This is impacting our communities. This is impacting unemployment. This is impacting housing instability. When people are policed, when people are incarcerated, it negatively impacts whole communities.

“We are in Rhode Island, we’re one degree of separation — I’m sure you have a family member who has been impacted by the War on Drugs, who has been put in a cage, who has been given this collateral consequence of a criminal record thats barred them out of all these things to live and survive, as a human being, for decades. This hits home. This impacts everyone. Just know that this is not far from you. We have to do this together — If you’re impacted, if you care about this, if you know this is just morally wrong, this is the time to step up.” – Cherie Cruz

Meko Lincoln

“From a historical perspective, the War on Drugs is on par with many of the past legislations enacted to restrict and bar people of color from participating in the prosperity of this country, such as Jim Crow laws and black codes in southern states. Initially, the War on Drugs was supposed to be for public good; however, the results were something totally opposite. It became very costly, and the policy emboldened law enforcement officials to target communities of color, thereby closing the doors to any type of prosperity.

“Today, our state is moving to legalize the sale, purchase and consumption of marijuana, and if passed it would make it not only legal, but profitable. This shift is a welcome shift, but it must accompany some real reparations. The legislation must reflect a true understanding of the harms done in the past. Regardless of if you are for or against marijuana legalization, if it is passed as law, there are going to be a lot of interests involved, and there’s going to be a lot of revenue being generated. For far too long our country has turned a blind eye to particular populations and communities. Communities of color, disproportionately impacted communities and low-income communities are always pushed to the fringe and not allowed to participate in the process.

“I just think it’s important that we as a community, we as a society, our whole state, just need to plug in and start educating ourselves and start asking our lawmakers to include the things that are important to us and our communities, those who have been disproportionately impacted by the War on Drugs. It’s been so long, we’ve come to accept what is as normal. In the past we’ve had this bait and switch type of legislation, that says one thing and does the complete opposite. And we don’t necessarily have to stand for that. It’s our state, and we have a voice. It’s our job and our responsibility to highlight those items [that need improvement] and bring them to our lawmakers so they can do the right thing. It is certainly through the laws of this state that we either build or destroy our communities.” – Meko Lincoln

New Jersey Legalized Marijuana!: What can we learn from the latest legal state?

More than three years after Governor Phil Murphy ran on a campaign promise to legalize marijuana, cannabis legalization for adult use is finally the law of the land in New Jersey. Voters overwhelmingly approved legalization through a ballot measure back in November, but months of disagreements among lawmakers and the governor’s administration held up final approval until the last possible moment – literally. The legislature had previously passed two bills to legalize and decriminalize cannabis in December, but negotiations around how to handle possession for minors came to an impasse early this year. It took a third “clean up” bill that passed with broad bipartisan support last week, for Governor Murphy to finally sign all three bills into law just ten minutes before the deadline.

Despite being the 15th state in the US to pass adult use cannabis legalization, the path to legalization in New Jersey has been fraught with arguments about the best ways to handle the various aspects of regulating cannabis. This is not entirely surprising, and not only because of the challenges of legalizing through the legislative process (as opposed to by ballot measure alone) – although we have seen many iterations of state regulations that attempt to “get it right”, I think we can all agree that no state has come up with the perfect policy yet. Still, there is much to be gleaned from each new attempt, and as many of us believe Rhode Island is poised to become one of the next states to legalize through the state legislature, I think there are a few important lessons we can learn from what happened in New Jersey.

What Does the Law Do?

Altogether, the three bills will legalize and decriminalize use and possession of up to 6 oz of marijuana for adults. Like most other legal states, it will also create a fully regulated legal retail market (the first between Boston and Washington DC), although that is unlikely to open doors for several months – or a year or more, realistically. That’s because a Cannabis Regulatory Commission needs to first be established, and tasked with creating specific regulations for the cannabis industry, including cultivation and retail licensing. Once the rules are set, the CRC can start accepting applications, but who knows how long the process will take from start to finish? Remember: It took two full years for dispensary doors to open in Massachusetts after citizens voted to legalize in 2016.

The other component of the legalization debate, which held up the process and necessitated the “clean-up bill,” is how the state will handle underage marijuana possession under the new laws. Before now, New Jersey laws were not doing much to keep young people out of the criminal justice system, with underage drinking punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 and six months in jail. Of course, we know that these types of laws are almost always disproportionately enforced in communities of color, which is the main reason for the legislative impasse earlier this month. Governor Murphy was concerned that the language of the first two legalization/decriminalization bills would leave the door open for de facto legalization for kids, which was no one’s intention. On the other hand, the NJ Legislative Black Caucus and proponents of criminal justice reform were concerned that overly punitive policies around possession by minors would likely result in young people of color bearing the brunt of enforcement, as usual.

Legislators came to a compromise in the clean-up bill, which would make underage possession of alcohol and marijuana subject to written warnings, that can later escalate to include parental notification and a referral to community services upon subsequent violations. The bill also set forth new guidelines for policing underage possession – officers can no longer use the odor of marijuana to justify a search, and body cameras must be used when engaging in these situations involving minors. While the powerful Policemen’s Benevolent Association called the law “anti-police,” many see it as a huge step forward for the civil liberties of the citizens of New Jersey, intended to prevent the irreparable damage that is caused by the criminalization of young people of color. I for one, will take “anti-police” if it means “pro-people” any day of the week.

How Will Taxes Work?

As the most populous legal state on the east coast, New Jersey cannabis sales are expected to generate $126 million in annual tax revenue, and I am sure lawmakers and state leaders are chomping at the bit to fill some of their budget deficit with marijuana money (sound familiar, Rhode Island?). The tax structure they have come up with is somewhat unique, and even visionary in its effort to mitigate the long-term effects of falling prices on cannabis tax revenues, and the programs they are expected to fund. This was another topic that was hotly contested in the legislature, resulting in two state taxes and an optional municipal tax. Here’s a quick breakdown of the taxes and what the revenue will be used for:

  • Enhanced State Sales Tax (7%)
    • 15% –  underage deterrence and prevention (community groups)
    • 59.5% – “impact zones” (cities with large Black and Latinx communities and high unemployment rates, where cannabis prohibition was most strictly enforced)
    • 25.5% –  “general fund” 
  • Social Justice Excise Tax 
    • $10-$60 per oz, depending on average market price of cannabis
    • 100% of revenue will go directly to “impact zones”
  • Optional 2% Municipal Tax – can be levied on any marijuana business within municipality

I doubt I’ve ever said before that tax rates are interesting, but there are a few notable components that make this tax structure worth mentioning. I like that there are multiple avenues for directing cannabis tax revenue to community reinvestment via the “impact zones” designation, and I am curious to see how the fluctuating tax based on the average price of 1 oz of cannabis will play out in reality. The idea is that even as the value of the product decreases over time, sales tax rates will remain steady, while the excise fee will increase, ensuring that revenue still flows into communities where it is most needed. The optional municipal tax will also help to ensure that towns and cities that don’t allow cannabis businesses within their borders will not be able to benefit from the resulting revenues in the same way as municipalities that do.

What’s Missing?

Overall, I am impressed with the efforts of New Jersey legislators to create comprehensive, meaningful laws around cannabis legalization for adult use. There will always be different opinions on the best way to legislate, tax and regulate, but if the contentious arguments, delays and resulting compromises are indicative of a resolution that was thoroughly debated, well-thought-out, and inclusive of as many voices as possible, that is still ultimately a win for democracy.

For me, there are a few glaring omissions in New Jersey’s new laws. I guess it shouldn’t be surprising that growing cannabis at home will remain prohibited in New Jersey, because they don’t even allow their medical patients to cultivate cannabis, but it bothers me just the same. If we agree that cannabis should be regulated similarly to alcohol, why can’t we allow responsible adults to grow it themselves, much as many people enjoy brewing their own beer at home? Even more infuriating is the lack of guaranteed or automatic expungement for those who have been punished under cannabis prohibition, which is something that simply must be included in any new legalization framework in my opinion. Similarly, lawmakers didn’t lay out their plans for creating an inclusive and equitable cannabis industry in New Jersey — namely low barriers to entry, social equity licensing and technical / financial assistance programs for prospective businesses who may lack the capital and entrepreneurial experience typical of the rich white men who already dominate the cannabis industry.

At the end of the day, I have to echo what New Jersey Senator Nicholas Scutari said of the process and resulting legislation: “No one is happy, and nothing is perfect. And let’s not let the pursuit of the perfect be the enemy of the good.” We shall see how New Jersey continues to refine its new cannabis laws in the coming years, but one thing is for sure: The pressure is on more than ever for other east coast states like New York, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island to legalize soon, if they don’t want to lose even more tax revenue to neighboring states. Let’s learn from the missteps, successes and outside-the-box thinking that allowed New Jersey lawmakers to eventually get past their differences, so as to create a better future for their citizens.

North of the Border : Support Black-owned businesses next time you buy legal weed in Massachusetts

Massachusetts was miles ahead of Rhode Island when they legalized cannabis for adult use in 2016, especially when you consider the comprehensive social equity provisions included in their legalization framework. While far from perfect, the Social Equity Program certainly set a new standard for what we should expect when it comes to state social equity provisions, and laid the groundwork for future refinement based on the challenges and pitfalls that Massachusetts has faced in the first years of legalization.

Despite the good intentions of the social equity program, it proved more difficult than expected to get minority-owned businesses licensed in Massachusetts. Only 4.5% of the applicants for state licenses registered as minority-owned, which reflects the abysmal lack of diversity of ownership in the cannabis industry as a whole — 81% white, and only 4% Black-owned (Marijuana Business Daily). Currently, only 10 of the 280 cannabis business licenses awarded in Massachusetts have gone to Economic Empowerment or Social Equity applicants, and nearly 75% of those who have applied to work in the industry are white (Black and Latinx people make up less than 12% of the marijuana workforce). 

There are certainly several contributing factors — institutional racism and generational wealth not the least of them. The road has been far from easy for many of them so far, and some are still yet to open their doors. In case you are one of the many Rhode Islanders who will be driving over the border to buy pot in Massachusetts this year (travel restrictions permitting!), here are a few Black-owned cannabis businesses you can support in 2021:

Pure Oasis; Boston, Mass: Opened in March 2020 and owned by Kobie Evans and Kevin Hart, Pure Oasis was the first adult-use dispensary to be licensed in Boston, after years of hard work and persistence. Unfortunately, COVID lockdowns in the spring forced them to close, and they reopened later only to be looted during Black Lives Matter protests that turned chaotic. After everything Pure Oasis has endured to be able to provide cannabis to their community, I think they’ve more than earned your business next time you’re in Boston. 

The Green Lady Dispensary; Nantucket, Mass: Billed as “Nantucket’s original marijuana dispensary,” The Green Lady is the first operational Black-owned and women-owned cannabis business in Massachusetts. With “a proud diverse ownership of Black Caribbean Americans and the next generation of young Black female entrepreneurs … The Green Lady is devoted to making a difference in this emerging industry, from our diverse workforce and the good deeds we do to help the local community.” The Green Lady Dispensary supports the efforts of local non-profit organizations, and brings jobs, benefits and state and local tax revenue to the island. 

New Día; Worcester, Mass (Coming 2021): Co-founded in 2018 by Ross Bradshaw, New Día’s “diversity-centered philosophy represents doing business in a responsible, ethical and compassionate way that provides opportunity to communities and people who have been disproportionately harmed by the war on drugs.” Even better, they have committed to hiring people who live in the neighborhood, and they’ll be opening summer 2021.

Evergreen Farms; Hyde Park, Mass (Coming 2021): Owners Sean Berte and Armani White were both convicted of marijuana crimes in the past, and today they own and operate Evergreen Farms in Hyde Park, thanks in part to the Massachusetts social equity program. Their license application was approved over a competing out-of-state applicant, and they are “passionate about keeping the economy local and hiring contractors who are Black, Indigenous, and other people of color.”

Perhaps the cannabis landscape in Massachusetts can provide some insight into what the road ahead might look like for Rhode Island — assuming we get our act together to pass adult-use legalization soon. And if we do our job right, we will be able to build on both the successes and failures of the Massachusetts Social Equity Program.

One thing that 2020 taught us is that it remains as important as ever to be a conscious consumer, and not just when it comes to your cannabis purchasing decisions. For many white people, Black History Month is a time to listen and learn (as should be every month of the year) but it is also critical for white allies to put our money where our mouth is when it comes to tipping the scales of capitalism toward equity. During a month when we celebrate Black leadership and excellence in the past, let us also recognize the history being made in the present. Supporting Black-owned businesses as a cannabis consumer is just one small way to work toward building the kind of future we all want to live in.

Marijuana Makes Strides: The worst year in living memory was good for weed

2020 will go down in history as a good year for literally no one. The unimaginable combination of a global pandemic, resulting economic crisis, political mayhem and widespread panic have tested all of us more than we probably thought was possible. But as I reflected on the year through the lens of cannabis policy, I realized that even in the worst year in living memory, the legal cannabis movement made incredible strides forward.

In January, Illinois (the first state to fully legalize through the legislature — take notes, Rhode Island!) opened doors on a comprehensive legal cannabis industry and robust social equity program that set a new standard for state-legal marijuana models. In Vermont, the first state to legalize through the legislature possession, consumption and cultivation of cannabis by adults, lawmakers finally approved a framework for retail sales this September and included in it automatic expungement for low level marijuana offenders to boot. Even in Virginia, legislators decriminalized cannabis possession and laid the groundwork for legalization in the future. 

Despite an economic situation that threatened to shutter businesses of all shapes and sizes, legal marijuana sales soared amidst the coronavirus pandemic, with consumer spending up 72% in Colorado between August and October (New Frontier Data). Whether the increased demand was related to stress relief, working from home or doomsday prepping, Americans were definitely buying and consuming a lot of cannabis this year. It helped that many cannabis businesses were designated “essential,” allowing people to continue to access legal marijuana even during periods of strict isolation. 

During a tough year for most industries, legal cannabis sales amounted to $20 billion in 2020, a number expected to surpass $41.5 billion by 2025 (New Frontier Data). Furthermore, TechCrunch reports that “the legal cannabis market supports 243,700 full-time-equivalent American jobs, which are set to multiply by 250% between 2018 and 2028. This makes the cannabis industry America’s largest source for new jobs.” Amidst unprecedented unemployment, the future for the cannabis industry is bright, and public support remains higher than ever. According to the Pew Research Center, 67% of Americans support cannabis legalization at the federal level.

The 2020 election would prove to be monumental on several levels, but cannabis was certainly the most decisive winner of the day. Marijuana reform was one of the few bipartisan issues in an incredibly divisive election year, which, coupled with record-breaking voter turnout, resulted in a green sweep across America. All state initiatives where cannabis was on the ballot passed with generous margins, with four states (Arizona, New Jersey, Montana, South Dakota) approving cannabis for adult use, and two legalizing medical marijuana (Mississippi, South Dakota). The new reality is that two-thirds of Americans now have access to legal adult use cannabis, 36 states have medical marijuana programs in place and 15 states have now legalized cannabis for adult use — and that is a very big deal. 

As significant as all of these advancements are, none is more exciting to me than the MORE Act. Approved by the US House of Representatives in early December, the MORE Act is a comprehensive federal marijuana reform package — the first bill of its kind to even get to a vote in Congress. While far from perfect, the MORE Act offers an incredibly important step in the right direction. It completely removes cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act, ostensibly legalizing marijuana at the federal level and allowing states to continue to regulate it as they see fit. Marijuana is currently considered a Schedule I substance, “highly addictive and with no medical value.” And yet here we are, the federal government finally poised to admit that the drug classification of cannabis has always been completely bogus, not based in reality or scientific fact. Alongside the MORE Act, the House also passed the Medical Marijuana Research Act, which would greatly improve the base of scientific evidence upon which we can build more sensible policies in the future.

Way back in 2020, my hopes of passing anything at all through the US Senate were nonexistent. Although there was bipartisan support for both bills, and President-Elect Biden has said he would sign them into law if they reached his desk, I wasn’t sure he would get the opportunity. But now, in January 2021, everything has changed. The Georgia runoff elections have flipped the Senate, making passage of progressive marijuana reform more likely than ever. I have a strange feeling (could it be hope?) that we might see the cannabis landscape change dramatically within the next few months. And if it does, we will have Stacey Abrams to thank for legal weed in the USA.