News Analysis: Cannabis Proposal Focuses on Medical as Lead-In to Recreational

There is a famously sarcastic aphorism “Laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made,” but the Rhode Island General Assembly despite all of the unpleasant grinding often fails even to produce sausage. While the legislature has dithered for nearly a decade about legalizing recreational use of cannabis, it is instead preoccupied with other matters such as eliminating the longstanding prohibition against farm home manufacture of unrefrigerated pickle relish (S.2193/H.7370).

Sen. Joshua Miller (D-28) and Rep. Scott Slater (D-10) have for many years led the effort in their respective chambers to legalize recreational use of cannabis, and in the current session take a more narrowly focused approach at reforming the medical cannabis program created in 2006 (S.2544/H.7621). Motif interviewed both before the coronavirus/COVID-19 emergency interrupted the General Assembly session, which usually runs from January to June, and it is not clear when, nor even whether, it can be resumed to consider any legislation at all. (Queries to the offices of Governor Gina Raimondo, Attorney General Peter Neronha, House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello (D-15) and Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio (D-4) were all unreturned by press time.) Miller, emphasizing that he was speaking only for himself and not Slater, said, “I’m trying to as quickly as possible get the Rhode Island medical program expanded into recreational. Therefore we have currently three compassion centers for medical; the proposal mirrors the governor’s proposal adding at least six, and we allow it to expand even further in our legislation.”

While Gov. Gina Raimondo proposed adding exactly six new compassion centers, the Miller-Slater proposal removes the limit entirely. Miller said, “The idea with us not putting limits on it is that we do have free enterprise, and the market will at some point limit it. Let the market limit it rather than the state regulating the limits. As an example, I think there are 1,500 liquor stores in the state by the amount of licenses available. At any given moment, there’s probably a few hundred of those dormant and the market expands into those or shrinks based on the retail marketplace, and alcohol is an example of something that was considered at one point something that should be prohibited and is now virtually regulated not by the state but by free enterprise.” Asked whether he was saying the number of liquor stores is essentially limited by the market and not by the counted license system, Miller said demand “always wavers somewhat underneath the amount of licenses available. So the the cap on liquor stores in the state, as an example, compared to marijuana and marijuana proposals, that it’s high enough on liquor stores that it’s more determined by the marketplace than it is by the state.”


“Up to eight times more arrests happen in communities of color than in other communities, and so the approach to enforcement has a real sort of social justice component to it,” Miller said, expecting that the proposal may attract support as a way of gaining tax revenue although his own motivation is social justice. “When people are trying to fill deficits, they seem to be more interested. That’s not why I’m interested in the legislation, but it’s why others are. And so the numbers become more and more stark every day as people look at other states where Rhode Islanders are acquiring marijuana legally, whether it’s while they’re on vacation in Las Vegas or Canada, or going to Massachusetts or elsewhere, and every time a Rhode Islander does that, they recognize this lost revenue toward whatever the state feels it should go to.”

RI is expected to soon have a product testing program for medical cannabis that upon legalization could protect recreational users now forced onto the black market, Miller said, so “there’s no toxicity or pesticides or other substances people don’t expect in their marijuana, what there’s no way to control in the black market is controlled in a regulated market.” Consumers would be willing to pay a premium to buy in a regulated market instead of the black market, Miller said. “I think people would be inclined to go towards a regulated market if they knew [product] was tested for identifying what it was: its potency, and its lack of pesticides, and other toxic additives or even other unidentified substances that could also be detrimental.”

Miller served as co-chair of a study commission on legalizing recreational use that he and Slater in a joint editorial said was created as a sham to avoid taking a vote (“News Analysis: RI to Study, not Legalize, Cannabis”, by Michael Bilow, Sep 6, 2017), and the commission blew through its original and then extended deadlines without ever making a report (“News Analysis: What Are Your Elected Officials Smoking?”, by Michael Bilow, Apr 18, 2018). “The commission expired, so we took it upon ourselves to include as many of what we heard as priorities there in the legislation that we introduced…. One of the things that we found surprising is the idea other states don’t have the kind of criteria we do for medical, this state should trust the physician on why they’re prescribing medical marijuana as it happens in other states, and now that we take licenses, medical cards, from other states, that we should probably go to that wider approach.” In the proposed legislation, Miller said, “The criteria are basically eliminated, and it’s just that the doctor feels that they should prescribe medical marijuana then they prescribe medical marijuana.”

Slater, the other co-chair, said that he heard from patients through commission testimony that there was a need for a reduction in prices, and the proposed legislation addresses this for hardship and disabled medical patients who qualify for SSI, SSDI, or Medicaid. “It would require compassion centers to set up a discount. I know a lot of the compassion centers say they offer discounts now, but this would have the health department set up a program that would make it mandatory, like a 30% discount,” Slater said.

Another priority for Slater is that the proposed legislation would eliminate “plant tags” where a tax is supposed to be charged for a physical token to be attached to each plant, preventing cultivators from raising more than the allowed number that could result in leakage into the black market (“News Analysis: Medical Marijuana in the State Budget”, by Michael Bilow, Feb 10, 2016). “The other thing would be getting rid of the plant tags… I was against it, anyway, from from the get-go when they proposed that idea. Part of the reasons they proposed that, they said that it was one of the first steps we needed to do for legalization, because they said we needed a tagging system to find out how many plants were actually out there, where they were located, and keep a good tracking of how many, exactly, cannabis plants were serving the population now.” The plant tag program was never implemented as anything close to originally proposed, and its stated goal was openly questioned (“News Analysis: Taxing Medical Marijuana”, by Michael Bilow, Feb 17, 2016). “They said it wasn’t about money. But the the tagging fees originally they proposed were outrageous. And they had some sort of outrageous budget number that they were going to bring in off the program… I forget the exact number, but they had something like $7 million in the budget that year, just off the medical program,” Slater said. “They said the police were worried about the black market for the plant tagging, but the reality is the tagging program never really came to fruition. So, from my understanding from talking to patients, all they do is get a piece of paper, they don’t even get tags. They get a piece of paper, what they tell me, that says, ‘You purchased,’ I don’t know, ‘12 tags.’ And you’ve paid just to put this paper, a piece of paper, up on your wall, and then it’ll be proof that you’re able to grow these 12 plants.”

A major concern expressed by Slater is that the RI regulatory approach to cannabis is hypocritical. “We keep trying to grab fees off of sick patients, okay? That’s what I mean, and there’s a lot of people in government that still don’t understand that it’s a medicine, that it should be a true medical program. And what they keep trying to do is not say that we have a recreational program but loosen the rules enough around the medical program so that more people can get in, and then raise fees and taxes, charge plant tag fees, and then charge $500,000 for a compassion center license, set up cultivators and charge them $30-40,000, and then just keep trying to raise money off of 20,000 patients.” The proposed legislation, in addition to removing the limit on the number of compassion centers, would reduce the license fee to $5,000.

Instead, Slater said, there should be a recreational program that subsidizes the medical program. “Whenever I hear patients talk to me about that, the phrase that they often introduce is they say that it’s as if the medical program is becoming big pharma… I don’t know if that’s necessarily the way it is. I mean, I get what they’re saying because I’m sure the cost of medicine is going up with the few compassion centers that we have and people not being able to grow and not access it.”