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Hemp, The Real Fabric of Our Lives: Why hemp fabric makes cotton look so last season

You guessed it – we’re back with another reason to love the cannabis plant, and this time it’s for one of the seemingly infinite useful applications of industrial hemp: spinning high quality fabrics out of the strong, sustainable fibers naturally produced by the plant. Read on to learn why this fast-growing (literally!) fabric may be here to stay, how it disappeared in the first place, and why hemp is better than cotton in almost every way.

Environmental Impact

As agricultural crops go, industrial hemp has many benefits and few downsides. Relatively fast-growing and high-yielding, hemp practically defines “renewable resource” in most climates, producing 5-10 tons of cellulose fiber pulp per acre in four months – more fiber per acre than trees! 

The fast rate of growth creates a dense canopy that helps shade out weed competition, and the same compounds that make cannabis a powerful plant medicine also make it relatively resistant to pests and diseases, as compared to other field crops. Its long root system allows it to thrive on less water, all while helping to improve soil structure, retain topsoil and even remove pollutants from deep within the soil. These characteristics, along with the plant’s ability to absorb carbon dioxide (also at a greater rate than trees) will become increasingly important as we confront the reality of our changing climate. In fact, hemp is one of the only carbon-negative crops, meaning that it sequesters more carbon than it generates per growing cycle. If that weren’t enough, it’s also an extremely versatile crop, with a high diversity of usable material yield with each harvest. The “hurds,” or tough inner parts of the hemp stem, can be used to make a variety of biocomposites and building materials — in fact, hemp “plastics” are already widely utilized in the automotive industry, as its high tensile strength and scratch resistance make it an ideal material for auto body paneling and interiors.

You have to admit that hemp is outstanding in its field (pun most definitely intended), but what about cotton – the so-called “fabric of our lives”? In terms of environmental impact, there is no comparison — cotton production requires a longer growing season, twice the land, and four times the water as the same amount of hemp. In fact, manufacturing one cotton shirt uses 2,700 liters of water, which is equivalent to the amount an average human drinks in two-and-a-half years! Furthermore, cotton’s susceptibility to pests and diseases creates another ecological problem – in the United States alone, cotton crops occupy 1% of farmland, but account for 50% of all pesticide use (per the Stockholm Environment Institute). With most of our country currently either on literal fire or experiencing excessive heat and drought, it’s pretty clear that we need to actively protect the clean water we have left, as well as reducing water use overall. If hemp production is superior to cotton in all of these ways, why is hemp fabric still so rare in the fashion industry? And why are we still so comfortable wearing cotton? Comfort is certainly one reason, but turns out there are a few factors at play when it comes to the battle of the fine fabrics.

Woven into History 

Since the first hemp stems were processed by humans more than 10,000 years ago, the resulting high quality fiber has been used for food, rope, oil, paper, and various textiles for domestic and industrial use. Hemp was spun into cloth around 8,000 BC, and until the 1920’s (when the prohibition of cannabis began), 80% of clothing was made from hemp textiles (hempfoundation.net). Since then, there has been a significant decline in both production and demand for hemp-based fabrics and other products, at least in the United States. The majority of industrial hemp grown and sold today is from Europe, China, and Russia, although the 2018 federal legalization of hemp in the United States should help bolster our domestic hemp fiber market. 

Cotton also has “deep roots” in the United States. The so-called “Cotton Belt” – a line of southern states stretching coast to coast – still produces 16 million bales a year, second only to China, and generating the greatest revenue of any United States crop. As the transatlantic slave trade and its associated industries spread their ugly tentacles across the nation, RI’s textile mills became instrumental to the flourishing cotton economy. Over 167 textile mills were producing goods from cotton by 1815, and the quaint villages and townships that popped up around them are still admired today (worldhistory.us).

Fiber Quality Over Quantity

Due to the natural length of the fibers (up to 5 ft!) hemp fabric boasts three times the tensile strength of cotton, meaning it won’t stretch or lose shape — in fact, hemp fabric gets better over time! Its longer lifespan (20-30 years as compared to 10 years for cotton cloth) allows hemp clothing to be worn for far longer before it is recycled — a far cry from the “fast fashion” fabrics that can become literal trash after just a few wears. In addition, hemp fabric is naturally UV and microbe resistant (thanks again to the antimicrobial nature of the terpenes and cannabinoids in the plant) making it ideal for those with sensitive skin or allergies. It’s also lightweight (weighing one third less than cotton or wool, which makes it more sustainable to transport as well) and breathable, due to the natural thermoregulating properties of the fiber network of hemp. Because hemp can absorb up to 20% of its own weight in water while still feeling dry to the touch, the fabric retains less moisture and less odor-causing bacteria, meaning more wears between washes. Lastly, because it is not made from petrochemicals, hemp fabric is biodegradable and will not shed microplastics like other modern fabrics.

The long history and economics of cotton are not the only reasons it remains so popular today. Cotton fabric is known to be soft, comfortable, easy to dye, and relatively resistant to wrinkling. Processing hemp fiber into fabric does not yield the whiteness and softness of cotton fibers, so it tends to wrinkle a bit more easily, and colors may be slightly less vibrant. These perceived disadvantages, alongside decades of anti-cannabis stigma and the limited availability of the fabric, have resulted in lower demand from consumers for hemp fabric, at least in the United States. Couple that low demand with a limited supply chain due to the prohibition of marijuana, and it’s no wonder the hemp fabric market is so behind the times. 

On the other hand, our well-established cotton infrastructure allows a large amount of domestic production of cotton fabric, which keeps the price low, and that doesn’t even begin to account for the economic impact of hundreds of years of “free” agricultural labor by enslaved peoples. Despite being less expensive and resource-intensive to farm, the cost of hemp fiber is still twice that of cotton, and American consumers are often hesitant to pay a higher price point, even if the quality is superior.

The good news is that as demand for hemp fabric (and our ability to produce more of it) increases, the price will inevitably come down for consumers. The legalization of industrial hemp in 2018, coupled with increasing awareness and social pressure, has resulted in more brands than ever before offering hemp-based fabrics and fashions. Fortunately, the versatility of hemp fiber also means that it is easily blended with other fabrics like cotton and silk, so consumers hoping to reduce their fashion footprint can actually have the best of both worlds. Plus, because hemp fabric is basically a stronger version of linen (a similarly sustainable fabric made from flax fiber), so if you don’t mind dropping a little extra dough on higher quality fabrics to stay cool, comfortable, and climate-friendly this summer, consider choosing hemp fabric for your family, and make the comparison yourself!




A Slice of Cannabis History: The prohibition of outdoor cannabis

The very first cannabis arrests in RI were of three Black men in 1934. Two weeks after these arrests, the State Narcotic Board began its nearly two-year crusade against the outdoor growth of the plant, eventually resulting in the prohibition of outdoor cannabis throughout RI. 

In the weeks immediately following this incident, the Providence Journal reported that the arrests had done nothing to prevent the continued sale and consumption of cannabis in the state. In fact, even though the previous field of cannabis had been destroyed at Field’s Point, two weeks later another field was quickly discovered. They wrote; “Since the arrest two weeks ago of four Negroes said to have been gathering and selling dried leaves of a large growth of the weed over several acres of city-owned land at Field’s Point, the State Board is understood to have received complaints that traffic in the drug was still being carried on in other places.” 

In direct response to the discovery of at least five more cannabis fields on public land and continued “traffic in the drug,” the State Narcotic Board proposed a state law that required landowners, lessees and tenants to report and destroy any cannabis plants found growing on their properties. Board Secretary Dr. Frederick Cole was quoted in the Providence Journal saying that “the arrest last November of four men and the destruction of the Allen’s avenue growth of the weed scarcely more than ‘dented’ the traffic in hashish in RI.” Thus, according to Cole, further action needed to be taken to prevent the traffic of “hashish, the narcotic drug which can wreck a human being as thoroughly as the European corn borer ruins crops.” Cole “asked for united action by social service and welfare organizations to put an end to the traffic in the weed, which he described as ‘the greatest danger that has threatened our youth in recent years.’”

 The Providence Journal made sure to remind its readers of the origin of this threat; “The general nature of hashish came forcibly to public notice last November when a Negro floater, taking temporary shelter at a Federal transient bureau, went for a walk along Allen’s avenue.” For the State Narcotic Board, this man was the only logical conclusion for the origin of the fields of cannabis throughout the state, which, according to their own research, was one of the only locations on the East Coast where it could grow naturally outdoors. 

As the gears of making statewide policy slowly turned, more RI residents took the opportunity to write to the Providence Journal to express their opinions on the proposed law. In a clever article titled “Every Man a Botanist,” an unnamed author expresses concern that landowners throughout the state have no legitimate ability to accurately identify the plant on their property, and that a more reasonable alternative would be to employ experts and to proceed in a “businesslike way.” The author then recognizes that this option would be both costly and time-consuming, and that “the evidence of [its] necessity,” in the first place, “is insufficient.”

The author proceeds, in true tongue-in-cheek fashion of the era, to voice their ultimate concerns with the proposed bill; “We have a feeling that there are many other things better worth doing, such as stamping out boot-legging, crime in general, the corn borer, bovine tuberculosis, Bang’s disease, the elm-leaf beetle, illiteracy, expectorating on sidewalks and automobile accidents. These are crusades begun but not ended. To start another will but diffuse our energies, which in all truth seem unequal to the responsibilities already accepted.”

Perhaps this feedback halted the policymakers in the moment, because no law was introduced or passed that year. However, a year later, a bill was introduced, “That ‘hashish,’ a habit-forming drug, be included in the State narcotic laws.” The Providence Journal noted that it was because of “an oversight” that “it was omitted from the model law enacted last year.” 

In the end, about a year and a half after the first cannabis arrests for possession in RI, the state passed H747, which placed “hashish” in the list of narcotics banned in the state, and thus required all landowners to eradicate any growths on their property. Cannabis was not legal to grow outdoors again until 2016, when the state passed the Hemp Growth Act, and then created its industrial hemp program, which began in 2019.




Slay Slater Slay: A review of Thomas C. Slater Compassion Center 

The day I finally received my medical marijuana card was one I’ll truly never forget. I remember brimming with excitement as my license was being scanned, with my GPS already set to the only dispensary I knew of at the time, the Thomas C. Slater Compassion Center. I remember the feeling of wonder and disbelief as I entered the building, with the sweet smell of flower perfuming around me as I handed over my still warm card to be checked in. I remember the staff, clearly recognizing how bewildered I was, guiding me through the process and answering any questions I had.

Years later, and many more dispensaries visited, I find myself constantly returning to Slater Center. Located right off 95 in PVD, it’s easily the most accessible in the state, with plenty of parking. After checking in at the front, you move on in and take a number. The space has ample room to wait as well as plenty of seating for those that can’t stand for too long. Once your number is called you make your way to the counter where a Patient Advisor is there to talk you through their lengthy menu which is displayed on a tablet for you to peruse. There’s also a display case for all the visual learners out there.

Now if you’re in more of a rush, or just don’t feel like talking to people, Slater offers a streamlined online ordering system where you can pick up in-store or through curbside. When the pandemic first hit in 2020, I was astounded at how quickly they converted to this system, making purchasing safer and more convenient for customers. I may be biased, but I’m pretty sure they were quicker and better at this than most other businesses in general.

When it comes to selection, few can beat the variety of products at Slater. Whether you’re looking for your standard flower and pre-rolls or something more out of the ordinary like their micro-dose inhaler, there’s certainly plenty to choose from. The best part is that many of their products are made in-house with a focus on quality and accessibility. Whether you’re a long-time stoner or a bit of a cannabis newbie, the Patient Advisors will always help guide you towards the best purchase.

Speaking of those Patient Advisors, one thing I have to note is that the staff are always super friendly, and everyone seems to be having a good time. As someone who’s worked in a lot of different fields over the years, if the staff is having a good time, chances are the customers will be joining them soon. I can’t stress enough how friendly and accommodating each staff member is.

Now let’s talk about some product. One thing I’ll mention are their infused sauces (Hot Sauce, BBQ, and Olive Oil). Each one is respectively delicious and adds just the right amount of kick to any dish. I also have to give a special shout out to their wide range of house-made Canna-Brews. They have a variety of flavors (my personal favorite being the grape) and are perfect on their own or with a splash of seltzer.

When it comes to flower, one thing I appreciate is the wide range of both prices and potency. As many of us are learning, THC percentage is not the end-all/be-all for deciding how high you’re going to feel, and the staff there are always happy to point you in the right direction. I personally enjoy a sweet, vanilla flavor with my herb, so the Do-Si-Dos was perfect for me and definitely had me hankering for some actual cookies.

I could write forever about all of the stuff I like at Slater Center, but one important factor I’ll emphasize is how they’ve made their products accessible to their patients. Not only do they design specialized products for patients with specific ailments (especially pediatric patients), but they offer special discounts (called compassions) to patients suffering financial hardships, helping them get the medicine they need.

With recreational cannabis now legalized in RI, dispensaries are looking at a much larger market than ever before. I think Slater Center is up to the task with its sheer size and proven record of making customers a top priority. I believe this methodology and their convenient location are the ultimate set up for success.




FINALLY!: Rhode Island legalizes cannabis for adult use

Pardon my excitement, but WE DID IT!! After years of coordinated advocacy efforts and many months of negotiations between stakeholders, at long last RI lawmakers managed to put a unified legalization bill to a vote on the House and Senate floors, where it passed with minimal opposition and was signed into law by the governor the very next day. Of course, we knew this was coming — not that it was inevitable, as many have opined over the last few years, but that at some point, our legislature would get its act together to join the rest of New England and much of the country in legalizing cannabis for adult use. But even though I meant it every time I said “this is really the year we make it happen,” a part of me was still in shock as I watched the House vote from a wooden bench in the gallery, the back wall lined with police officers standing in solidarity — a thin blue line of stoic opposition. After spending one third of my life advocating for this very moment, it was surreal to see the names of representatives light up in green, one by one, on the Capitol TV screen on the wall. I couldn’t help but well up with emotions as the final gavel fell, signifying the end of cannabis prohibition and the start of a new chapter in RI. 

The Bill That Lived

Whether it was reduced stigma around cannabis due to legalization in 18 other states, continued advocacy work finally making an impact or just an increasingly acute awareness of the tax revenue being lost to MA every day, lawmakers seemed to come to the table with a different attitude this legislative session. 

For the first time in ten years, they managed to put differences aside to come up with a singular bill to file in both chambers – a compromise between the needs and demands of all the various stakeholders, without diluting the best parts of each approach. It’s a tall order, but it was that spirit of collaboration, coupled with some critical last-minute amendments, that brought this legislation over the finish line to become one of the best legalization laws we’ve seen yet in this country. 

Effective Immediately:

  • Possession – Adults (21+) can possess up to 1 oz of cannabis for personal use (maximum of 10 oz in storage per household) and possession of up to 2 oz for adults 18+ and older will be decriminalized, resulting in a civil penalty without the threat of jail time.
  • Home Grow – Adults (21+) can grow up to 6 plants for personal use (3 immature / 3 flowering), as long as safety requirements laid out in the legislation are met.
  • Expungement – While the automatic expungement process is pending (see “Stay Tuned” below), those eligible may petition the court immediately for expedited clearance of their case.
  • Social Equity Fund – All fees paid by legal cannabis businesses will be directed into a dedicated fund to provide assistance to applicants from communities disproportionately impacted by the criminalization of cannabis.
  • Licensing – New license structures will be available and set aside for social equity businesses (with at least 51% of owners or employees qualifying under specific criteria) and worker-owned cooperatives, the latter of which has never been done before – RI may have missed the boat on a lot of firsts when it comes to cannabis, but at least we can say that we led the way in one thing!

The Road to Retail

  • “Hybrid” Dispensaries – Starting August 1, 2022 (mere weeks from now!), the first stores to open for adult-use sales will likely be the ones that are already open. The amended legislation expedites the licensing for existing medical marijuana dispensaries – for a $125,000 fee — in an effort to streamline the path to adult-use cannabis sales.
  • New Licenses – Aside from the nine hybrid licenses that will presumably be granted to each of the existing compassion centers, 24 new retail licenses will also be available right away — of those, 25% of licenses must be awarded to social equity applicants, 25% to worker-owned cooperatives, and all 24 must be divided up equally between the six geographic zones laid out in the state.
  • Cultivation & Vertical Integration – There will be a moratorium on new cultivation licenses for two yearsUnlike our existing dispensary business model, the new licenses will be retail-only, and no single entity will be allowed to possess more than one business license. 
  • Taxes – Retail cannabis sales will be subject to a 7% state sales tax, 10% state excise tax, and 3% municipal tax (the latter of which will only be available to those cities and towns that allow for cannabis businesses).

Stay Tuned:

  • Expungement — The amended legislation mandates for state-initiated (automatic) expungement of criminal convictions for misdemeanor or felony possession up to 2 oz, a process that must be completed by July 1, 2024.
  • Regulatory Authority —  An independent Cannabis Control Commission (CCC) and new advisory board will be created to help craft regulations. Members of the CCC will be appointed by the governor using a suggested list compiled by the legislature — a compromise that was reached after Gov. McKee raised concerns about the constitutionality of too much legislative control over appointees. 
  • Medical Marijuana — All fees associated with application, renewal, and cultivation of medical marijuana for personal use will be eliminated completely as soon as adult-use sales begin, perhaps as early as December of this year.
  • Detecting Impairment — One of the more urgent issues to address as we move forward, at least according to opponents of the legislation, will be the criteria used by law enforcement to detect cannabis impairment in drivers. Proposed solutions include more “drug recognition experts” — a costly pseudoscientific training program, increasingly marketed to police departments in the age of legalization — the odor of cannabis, and blood testing of drivers for THC, but it should be noted that there are no scientifically reliable or valid forms of detecting cannabis impairment yet.

The work of building a stronger, more equitable cannabis industry in RI is far from over, but I believe we have laid a solid foundation with the Rhode Island Cannabis Act. I am sure that I will have plenty of opinions and criticism to offer as we move into the regulation and implementation phases, but for right now, I am quite proud of our small state.




Pot in Every Pot: RI Legalizes Recreational Cannabis

Recreational cannabis will be legal in RI under a new bill that will be signed into law at a ceremony later today (Wed, May 25) announced by Gov. Daniel McKee for 3:15pm on the south plaza of the State House. Motif plans to live-stream the ceremony – facebook.com/motifri/videos – on Facebook. RI joins 18 other states, including Massachusetts and Connecticut, that have also legalized.

Sponsored in the Senate (S.24300Aaa) by Sen. Joshua Miller (D-28, Cranston and Providence) and in the House (H.7593Aaa) by Rep. Scott A. Slater (D-10, Providence), the new Cannabis Act is the culmination of a decade of effort to regulate and tax adult recreational cannabis usage similarly to alcohol. Both chambers passed textually identical versions late yesterday (Tue, May 24) afternoon by overwhelming votes, 32-6 in the Senate and 55-16 in the House, largely along party lines with Democrats supporting and Republicans opposing the bill, sending it to the governor for his signature. The approvals were widely expected after favorable committee reports last week (Wed, May 18): although the Senate took only a half-hour to debate and vote, the House engaged in a more contentious debate that consumed two hours before voting.

RI Senate passes Cannabis Act (H.2430) by vote of 32-6, May 24, 2022.
RI House passes Cannabis Act (H.7593) by vote of 55-16, May 24, 2022.

For adults at least age 21, possession of personal use quantities of cannabis was decriminalized by RI in 2013, but the new legislation expands that to decriminalize both sale and possession of up to one ounce, and up to 10 ounces for personal use may be kept at a primary residence. Small amounts up to three plants can be grown by those for whom possession is allowed.

A late amendment provides for automatic expungement of criminal convictions, changed from earlier versions of the bill that would have required individual petitions to the courts. (See “ExSPONGing Away Criminal Records: Fighting for automatic expungement in RI”, by Kristen Dansereau, Apr 6, 2022.) Convictions eligible for expungement include any prior civil violation, misdemeanor, or felony conviction for possession of cannabis that would be decriminalized by the new law. Automatic expungement by July 1, 2024, will occur without requiring affected individuals to file a request, pay a fee, or have a hearing, but those who choose not to wait may request an expedited process to have their records expunged sooner.

Municipalities not already hosting medical compassion centers may by referendum opt out of allowing sales. Municipalities currently hosting licensed cultivators or testing laboratories may opt out for the future, but existing facilities will be grandfathered in. A procedure is provided that allows communities to revisit their decision to opt out in later years, should they choose to do so. Municipalities may by local ordinance ban use of cannabis in public places.

In addition to the regular sales tax of 7%, new excise taxes will be imposed on cannabis sales of 10% to the state and 3% to the municipality in which the sale occurs. The new law eliminates fees for patients and caregivers in the RI medical cannabis program, including for identification cards and plant tags, effective Dec 1.

The general assembly said in a statement the law creates a new three-member Cannabis Control Commission whose members are appointed by the governor with input from the Speaker of the House and approval from the Senate, assisted by a new Cannabis Advisory Board. The existing administrative Office of Cannabis Regulation within the Department of Business Regulation will handle the transition to legal recreational use, including issuing hybrid licensing to existing compassion centers and cultivators.

RI Sen. Joshua Miller (D-28)

In the statement Miller, who chairs the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, said, “The reality is that prohibition does not stop cannabis use. Since Rhode Islanders can already access cannabis just across the state border or on the illicit market, we experience all the challenges without any of the safeguards or resources that our neighboring states have. With this bill, we are ending prohibition in a way that is safe, keeps revenue in Rhode Island, and is as fair and equitable as we can possibly make it. This bill has been years in the making, and is a collaborative effort to address concerns about protecting medical use, ensuring fair governance and recognizing that we cannot make this transition without taking action to make whole the communities and individuals who have been punished for decades under prohibition.”

RI Rep. Scott A. Slater (D-10)

In the statement Slater, who is first vice chair of the House Finance Committee, said, “Social equity has been a top concern for us throughout this whole process. Senator Miller and I represent some of the communities that have suffered disproportionate harm from prohibition for decades, resulting in generational poverty and mass incarceration. The starting line isn’t the same for people in poor, urban and minority communities, and they deserve support to ensure they get the full benefit of participating in legalization. I am grateful to my colleagues in the General Assembly for recognizing the importance of expungement of criminal records and equity in licensing, because they are absolutely critical to ending prohibition fairly.”

Rep. K. Joseph Shekarchi (D-23, Warwick), the speaker of the House, said in the statement, “I thank all the advocates, stakeholders, staff and especially Representative Scott Slater, who has worked tirelessly on this issue for the past decade. The bill represents a strong foundation from which to build the safe, equitable regulation of cannabis for adult use. We are proud that this legislation prioritizes the participation of people most impacted by the past enforcement of cannabis laws both through automatic expungement and the creation of a licensing structure based on social equity.”

Sen. Michael J. McCaffrey (D-29, Warwick), the majority leader, said in the statement, “This is a truly momentous day for Rhode Island. I’m deeply grateful to Senator Miller for his years of hard work and leadership on this issue, and I’m incredibly proud to have been part of reaching this point. I also want to thank President Ruggerio for his support throughout this process. Ending cannabis prohibition helps us right past wrongs while creating new opportunities for all Rhode Islanders. This is the right move, at the right time, for our state.”

Jared Moffat of Regulate RI and the Marijuana Policy Project

Jared Moffat, long active in the RI legalization effort since his days as a Brown University student and now state campaigns manager for the national Marijuana Policy Project, said in a press release, “We are grateful to Rep. Scott Slater and Sen. Josh Miller for their years of leadership on this issue. Rhode Islanders should be proud of their lawmakers for passing a legalization bill that features strong provisions to promote equity and social justice. We’re also thankful to Rep. Leonela Felix who advocated tirelessly for the inclusion of an automatic expungement provision that will clear tens of thousands of past cannabis possession convictions.”

In addition to Miller, the Senate bill was co-sponsored by Sens. McCaffrey, Goodwin, Ruggerio, Coyne, Pearson, Acosta, Kallman, Archambault, and Murray. In addition to Slater, the House bill was co-sponsored by Reps. Hull, Williams, Kazarian, Solomon, McNamara, O’Brien, Potter, Bennett, and Morales.

Motif has made available the portions of the full House and Senate sessions relevant to the Cannabis Act:

  video and audio audio only
Senate (34m) (38.5MB) (4.1MB)
House (2h02m) (138.5MB) (14.6MB)

 




How Clean is Your Cannabis?: A conversation with Cannalytics RI

With the evolving state of legal cannabis, it can be hard to keep track of the ever-changing regulations (even if it’s part of your job!), especially when it comes to testing requirements for cannabis products. Comprehensive testing requirements are essential to ensuring the quality and safety of a product intended to supply patients – many of whom are dealing with compromised immune systems, cancer, and other serious conditions – with the medicine they need to live. It is wild to imagine that potency and contamination testing would be treated as an afterthought, as it has been here in RI. Even as someone who closely follows cannabis industry and policy news, I wanted a refresher on the current status of state regulations for lab testing for cannabis. That is how I found myself in West Warwick on a typical damp and gray April day, where I stopped by RI’s newest state-licensed cannabis testing facility to see how the industry looks through the lab microscope – er, lens.

Cannalytics RI is tucked into a nondescript shopping plaza along the banks of the Pawtuxet River, and at first glance you may not realize that a state-of-the-art cannabis laboratory has made its home there – especially if, like me, you are slightly distracted by the independent donut shop that exists there as well. “Homemade Donuts” reads the sign most visible as you enter the plaza, the letters brightly colored in yellow and blue — a branding choice made in defiance of their pink and orange corporate counterpart, I am sure. I parked in front of the Family Dollar and made my way to the corner unit, where I found the door locked (as it always is, for security purposes). I rang the doorbell, and through the large windows I could see co-owner Mike Pytell emerge from behind a high tech instrument (a High Performance Liquid Chromatography-Photodiode Array Detection machine, I later learned) to let me into the bright and open lab space, which is surprisingly aesthetic in decor. 

I met Pytell and co-owner Tanya Luongo a couple of years ago at another lab, and I had been excited to learn that they had struck out on their own to open a new facility in RI earlier this year. Their combined thirty years of scientific experience, infused with a passion for plant medicine, led to a perfect fit in the marijuana testing industry. At the cannabis lab where they started together (and where I met them originally), Luongo and Pytell spent a full year developing extensive laboratory methods, procedures and manuals that resulted in the successful state licensure of one of only two cannabis labs in the state of RI at the time. In addition to navigating the challenges of obtaining state licensure, their professional backgrounds in various chemical industries gave them the skills to develop testing procedures and analysis methods not yet used by any cannabis laboratory in RI, such as low-level beverage extraction procedures and analysis methods.

“Cannalytics RI was born not only from a desire to provide lab services to the cannabis community, but to assist with regulation guidance and implementation as well,” Pytell explained when I asked why they wanted to start their own lab. “When Tanya and I met upon entering the confusing world of RI cannabis, it was quite obvious that the lab sector was rather underwhelming, and was screaming for reinforcement.” Dissatisfied with the state of the testing industry at the time, especially the “horribly underqualified” cannabis lab where they had met and worked together, Luongo and Pytell opened Cannalytics RI “to carry on our hard work, and to provide the community with a lab they can trust. The ability to control our own lab top to bottom is crucial; it’s how we are able to truly deliver the integrity and due diligence that our clients rightfully deserve.”

Despite its relative maturity, Pytell and Luongo felt that the RI cannabis industry was still underdeveloped, and there was a clear need for accurate, responsible and accessible lab services. “It’s kind of sad that we’re only at where we are, in 2022,” Pytell said about the RI cannabis industry.

Let’s look at where we came from, where we’re at and what lies ahead when it comes to regulating cannabis product safety in our state.

Medical marijuana was legalized in RI in 2006, and our first compassion center opened its doors in 2013. Would you believe that the state did not require third-party potency analysis on cannabis flower being sold to patients until JANUARY 14, 2021?! What about contamination by mold, heavy metals, and pesticides? It would be extremely dangerous to sell potentially contaminated medicine to sick patients, so the state must have had strict requirements when it came to testing for those components, right? WRONG! I hate to break it to you, but medical marijuana was not required to be tested for mold until March of 2021 (see motifri.com/cannabis-testing, Jan 2021), and heavy metal regulations followed in December of 2021, just a few months ago. Worse, there are STILL no regulations requiring pesticide and residual solvent analysis, and not even potency testing is required for edibles and other infused products sold at compassion centers. “I talk to cultivators who still don’t know that edible testing is not required,” Pytell tells me, his facial expression disclosing a combination of disbelief and resignation that has become quite common in the RI cannabis community. 

Without a requirement for even the most basic potency analysis – essential for accurate labeling and dosing — the only parties responsible for testing products and reporting results to consumers were the compassion centers themselves, with virtually no oversight or laboratory license requirements until 2021. As both producers and retailers, the vertically integrated dispensaries are incentivised to provide only the best results to patients, though I highly doubt that they were conducting internal contamination testing. They most likely knew the results would not be favorable for them, as even average consumers like myself have been aware of alleged improper pesticide use and issues with aging, moldy cultivation facilities for many years.

“How much untested or contaminated product was sold to unwitting patients in those years?” Pytell asked, a question that has echoed across the medical marijuana space for years. Patients and advocates have been raising the alarm about this issue for some time, and many still choose to rely on home-grow or a caregiver to provide them with safe cannabis for their condition. “The question is, what is medical cannabis to you? [In my opinion] it has to be clean – it’s contradictory to sell someone a mold-covered bud when you’re talking about medicine.”

Regulations aren’t the only challenge facing the cannabis lab industry, though, according to Pytell and Luongo. “The RI market seems to be seriously suffering from a lack of sales,” which they and others attribute to several factors. A major factor is decreased demand from patients, especially as neighboring states legalize cannabis. With such a huge array of high quality (and actually tested!) cannabis products available at nearby adult use dispensaries – many of which are located closer to many RI patients than our own state’s compassion centers — you don’t need to be an economist to understand how supply and demand works, or to predict this type of basic consumer response to market changes. In fact, advocates have been warning lawmakers of this exact scenario for years, encouraging our state to legalize cannabis for adult use in a timely fashion, lest the hard-earned coin of Rhode Islanders be swallowed up by the tax coffers of other states.

Add oversupply to an already decreased demand, and the situation only gets worse. Since 2017, the state has issued 68 cannabis cultivator licenses in an effort to gain more control over medical cannabis production in RI, replacing the caregiver-based model that our medical marijuana program initially relied on. This influx of licensed growers was meant to supply an expanded medical program and potential adult use market, or so we thought. Significant delays in the licensing of six new compassion centers and approval of adult-use legalization has created a situation that is increasingly untenable for both cultivator and laboratory licensees. With cultivators operating at half capacity and no one to sell their product to, “it introduces a sense of desperation,” Pytell said. “What are people supposed to do?” Even in the last year, the price for a pound of cannabis flower has reportedly been cut in half, with cultivators being forced to sell at whatever price the market demands. And with the “market” still tightly held in the political grip of “The Big Three” compassion centers, it is the small business owners and other cannabis license holders that have suffered the consequences.

Luongo and Pytell had hoped that when the six new dispensaries open doors, the improved access to medicine in our state would lead to increased demand among their clients, most of whom are licensed cultivators, and that would in turn lead to better business for every one in the industry. But it’s hard to be optimistic with the regulatory track record RI has, and although there will be a two-year moratorium on issuing new cultivator licenses, that may not help much if all six new compassion centers end up sourcing much of their product from cultivators that may be “laterally-integrated” with the retail license holders, Pytell says. “If the new facilities are able to grow their own medicine, it could exacerbate the supply issues we already face…you’re going to have nine dispensaries that are self-sufficient, and a lot of cultivators still left with nowhere to sell – which begs the question of ‘Why?!’” 

To answer that question, I did some quick math — at around $20,000 per license per year, the state of RI is most likely bringing in over one million dollars in cultivator licensing fees alone, let alone the new compassion centers, labs, and existing dispensary fees. “It’s not even about the patients anymore, it’s all about the money,” Pytell says. Meanwhile, the state is rolling out more testing requirements, which is great, but means that the labs, much like cultivators, are forced to invest in expensive specialized equipment and instruments, which often run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, just to ensure that they are calibrated and ready to support the market once those testing regulations do become law.

Still, Luongo and Pytell are glad to be here. “In many ways, I do feel the industry here is still in its infancy and needs to be nurtured. However, we are a small state that has great potential, as there is a tight-knit group of talented licensed growers and extractors here..it’s a wonderful thing to be a part of.” As I left the lab that day, I couldn’t help but notice the Douglas Adams quote emblazoned in gold letters against a navy blue accent wall, surrounded by golden molecules of cannabinoids and other chemical compounds: “To give real service, you must add something which cannot be bought or measured with money. And that is sincerity and integrity” – two things we could certainly use more of here in the RI cannabis industry.




More Canna-recipes

Sweet Cannabutter Pretzel Bites

These one-bite treats are a guaranteed crowd pleaser. While you could use pre-made pretzel bites from the store, we recommend this homemade recipe to ensure optimal flavor. Boiling the bites in a baking soda solution is the trick to achieving that crispy, golden crust, and a generous coating of cannabutter and cinnamon sugar will be sure to satisfy even the most extreme cases of munchies. 

Yield: Approximately 30 pretzel bites 

Pretzel Dough:

  • 2 tablespoons light brown sugar
  • ½ cup warm water
  • ½ package active dry yeast yeast
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • ½  cup bread flour
  • 1Tbsp softened butter

Boiling Solution:

  • 6 tablespoons baking soda
  • 1 quart water

Cinnamon Cannabutter:

  • 1 cup melted cannabutter*
  • 2 cups granulated sugar
  • 4 tablespoons cinnamon

For the dough: Combine the sugar, water and yeast in the bowl of a stand mixer. Let sit to activate the yeast, about 10 minutes. The mixture should be bubbly and foamy. Meanwhile, in a separate bowl, combine the two flours and whisk together. When the yeast is ready, add the oil and stir to combine. Add half of the flour mixture to the wet ingredients and use a bread hook attachment on low speed to mix it in. Add in the remaining flour and knead on medium-high speed until the dough is smooth and elastic, and pulls away from the sides of the bowl. 

Cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a dish towel and let the dough rise until doubled in size. This may range between 10-30 minutes depending on the temperature of your kitchen. The warmer the room, the less time the dough will need to rise.

To shape: Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Divide into 6 equal pieces. Take one piece and roll the dough out into a log, about 15-20 inches long. While rolling, keep the rest of the dough covered with plastic wrap to prevent it from drying out. Cut each log into 1½ – 2 inch long pieces. Transfer to a parchment-lined baking pan.

For boiling: Combine the baking soda and water in a pot and bring to a simmer. The baking soda should be fully dissolved. Drop in 7-10 pretzel bites at a time and poach them for 10-15 seconds. Use a slotted spoon to remove them from the boiling solution, letting any excess water drip off, and transfer them back to the parchment-lined baking pan. 

To bake: Preheat the oven to 425℉. When all of the pretzel bites have been boiled, arrange them on the baking sheet so none are touching and they have room to grow. Bake for 15-18 minutes until a dark, golden brown. Transfer to a cooling rack and let cool completely. 

To finish: Coat the cooled pretzel bites in the melted cannabutter. In a separate bowl, whisk together the sugar and cinnamon and toss the pretzel bites in to cover completely. 

*This recipe was tested for this issue with Sam Burgess’ Foolproof Cannabudder (recipe above). Your THC dosage results may vary based on your cannabis bud of choice. 

Glazed Chocolate Doughnut Holes

This recipe was designed for the lazy baker, utilizing your favorite chocolate cake mix and transforming it into a glazed (and dazed) treat. All you have to do is make the cake mix as you normally would, with a bit less liquid to make the ideal doughnut batter. Fry these up, and you won’t be needing to hit the Dunkin’ drive-through anytime soon. You can also make this recipe with cannaoil instead of butter and use non-dairy milk for the glaze to make a dairy-free version. 

Yield: Approximately 4 dozen doughnut holes

Doughnut Batter:

  • 1 15 ¼ oz box chocolate cake mix
  • 1 egg
  • ½ cup melted cannabutter*
  • ¼ cup water
  • Neutral oil, for frying

Glaze:

  • 1¼ cups powdered sugar
  • ¼ cup cocoa powder
  • 3-5 tablespoons milk
  • Sprinkles (optional)

For the batter: In a bowl, combine the cake mix, egg, melted cannabutter, and water. Whisk to combine. Refrigerate for 30 minutes to let thicken. 

To fry: In a heavy-bottomed pot, bring 3-4 inches of neutral oil to 375℉ (use a thermometer to monitor the temperature). When the oil is ready, drop heaping tablespoons of the batter into the oil, about 3-4 at a time, and fry 1-2 minutes per side, flipping them. Frying time may vary. Test the doneness of the doughnut holes with a toothpick — if it comes out clean, they are ready. Adjust fry time as needed.  

For the glaze: In a small bowl, whisk together the powdered sugar and cocoa powder. Add in the milk (or non-dairy milk, if using) and whisk to combine until the glaze is a thin, runny consistency. 

To finish: Dip the cooled doughnut holes into the glaze and cover completely. Transfer to a cooling rack to let any excess glaze drip off and decorate with sprinkles, if desired. Let the glaze set slightly, about 10 minutes. Serve immediately.  

*This recipe was tested with Sam Burgess’ Foolproof Cannabudder recipe. Your THC dosage results may vary based on your cannabis bud of choice. 

No-Bake PB&J Cheesecake Bars

A peanut butter and jelly sandwich is the perfect meal for when you’re not feeling up to cooking. Luckily, these tincture-spiked cheesecake bars also need no oven — so you can get “baked” without any baking required. We opted for a pretzel crust instead of the traditional graham cracker, and while we used grape jam, feel free to use strawberry, raspberry, or any other flavor that you like in a PB&J. 

Yield: 16 servings 

Crust: 

  • 1¾ cups mini pretzels 
  • 2 tablespoons packed dark brown sugar
  • 5 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

Filling:

  • 8oz cream cheese, softened to room temperature 
  • ⅓ cup sour cream
  • ½ cup sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • ½ cup smooth peanut butter
  • 10 mL cannabis tincture*
  • ¼ cup heavy cream
  • ¼ cup fruit jam of choice

For the crust: Cut a sheet of parchment paper to fit the bottom of an 8”x8” square pan with a few inches of overhang. Place the mini pretzels in a gallon zipped-top bag and crush with a rolling pin until finely ground with no large pieces remaining. Transfer to a bowl and add the brown sugar, whisking to combine. Add the melted butter and whisk again. Press the crust into the prepared dish and freeze until fully firmed up, at least 30 minutes. 

For the filling: Combine the cream cheese, sour cream, sugar, vanilla, peanut butter and tincture in a medium sized bowl. Use a hand mixer to beat the mixture until the ingredients are fully combined. Add the heavy cream and continue to beat until the mixture is light and fluffy, about 2-3 minutes. 

Pour the filling onto the chilled pretzel crust. Use the back of a spoon or an offset spatula to smooth out the filling. Dollop small spoonfuls of jam over the top and use a toothpick to swirl it throughout the filling. 

To finish: Refrigerate for at least 4 hours. When fully chilled, cut the cheesecake into sixteen 2” square pieces. Keep finished cheesecake bars for one week in the fridge or two months in the freezer.

*This recipe was tested with Howl’s Tincture, with a ratio of 7mg THC per 1mL oil. One 2” square serving will contain approximately 4⅜mg THC. Your results may vary based on tincture brand of choice. 

All recipes have been tried successfully, but results may vary from person to person. Consult your medical professional before using any recipe if you have concerns about how you may individually react to the use of any particular ingredient. By voluntarily creating and using any recipe provided here, you assume the risk of any potential injury that may result.




Baked in Providence: Essential edibles recipes 

Pass the cookies!

Consuming cannabis in edibles such as brownies and gummies has been popular almost as long as smoking it, but we’ve seen a huge culinary resurgence in recent years. This is due to the legalization movement, the widespread rediscovery of cannabis health benefits, and cooking entertainment such as Bong Apetit, Cooked with Cannabis, and CHOPPED 420. Many see it as a healthier way to consume the active ingredients without the harmful carcinogens attached to inhaling burning flower. 

It doesn’t take a cannaisseur to know there are multiple aromatic components in cannabis, known as terpenes. These sticky flavor bombs are the same compounds that are found in foods like lemon zest (limonene), pine needles (pinene), and fresh hops (myrcene). There are over 400 known terpenes in cannabis and they act as the main flavor differentiator when sampling strains side-by-side. 

These natural compounds are powerful antioxidants that reduce cancer-causing free radicals, protect cells from outside damage, and offer antifungal and antibacterial properties. Emerging research claims that cannabis consumption may prevent COVID-19 and its variants from attaching their spike protein to cells, actively preventing infections after consumption. Sounds pretty chill to me!

When crafting your own edibles, there are tons of resources available in books and online, and techniques vary depending on what your final product might be. I use HERB by Laurie Wolf and Melissa Parks for questions, guides, and recipe inspiration. The most critical ingredient is the budder itself, which will contain all the activated THC and CBD from the flower and is the starting point for any kind of edible. 

Dosing, however, is the difference between a laughter-filled Friday night or a paranoid snooze fest. Everyone has a different tolerance level to the active effects of marijuana, so it’s recommended to start with a half serving (5mg THC) if it’s your first time-consuming. Edibles can take anywhere from 45 minutes to 3 hours to start feeling the effects, so make sure you wait before you go for another bite!

Below is a simple guide for budder beginners and experts alike, as well as some sweet and savory recipes. Enjoy responsibly! 

Cannaoil/Budder

This is my own recipe and a starting point for any edible-infused recipe. The toasting or decarboxylation of ground cannabis unlocks the full flavor and psychoactive effects — it’s optional but definitely encouraged. Store in a cool, dark place, and use within 6 months.

Makes: 4 cups

Serving size: 1 teaspoon

Ingredients:

  • 1-ounce cannabis flower, medium ground or 2 ounces cannabis leaf (shake), medium ground
  • 4 cups oil (canola oil, extra virgin olive oil, coconut oil, clarified butter, etc.)

Directions:

  1. Preheat the oven to 240°F. Break-up cannabis flower or cannabis leaf into smaller pieces with your hands. Spread the ground material evenly on a rimmed baking sheet and bake for 30 minutes, stirring every 10 minutes to make sure it toasts evenly (note: this will smell up your kitchen). Remove from oven once toasted. 
  2. In a large saucepan, add oil and heat over low heat. Stir in the cannabis and cook for 3 hours, stirring every 30 minutes (note: between 200-250°F is the goal — a crockpot works too!). Don’t let it come to a rolling boil or the material will burn.
  3. Line a strainer or sieve with cheesecloth and place it over a large bowl or separate large saucepan. Once the time is up, pour oil through the cheesecloth and press down on cannabis using a spatula to extract as much oil as possible. The leftover plant material can be used in some applications, but most people toss it.
  4. Let the oil cool to at least room temperature before transferring to a glass jar with a lid and store it in a cool, dark place or the freezer. 

Salted Almond Butter Chocolate Bites

Sweet, salty, nutty, chocolatey and totally delicious. The strong flavors of chocolate and almond butter almost completely mask the herbaceous oil so it’s a great recipe for first-time cooks. The sweet bites might inspire you to make it without the active ingredients!

Makes: 16 bites

Serving size: 1/16 piece

Ingredients:

  • 4 tablespoons salted butter, melted
  • 4 tablespoons prepared cannaoil
  • 1 cup graham cracker crumbs, crushed
  • 1 ½ cups confectioners’ sugar (plus more, if needed)
  • 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons plain almond butter, divided
  • 1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
  • Flaky salt, like Maldon sea salt, as needed (optional)

Directions:

  1. Line an 8”x8” square baking pan with parchment paper and set aside. In a medium bowl, mix together the melted butter, prepared cannaoil, crushed graham cracker crumbs, and confectioners’ sugar. Stir in 1 cup of almond butter and if the mixture is too soft, add more powdered sugar, 1 tablespoon at a time. Press evenly into the baking pan.
  2. Melt the remaining 2 tablespoons of almond butter with the semi-sweet chocolate chips over a double boiler, or in the microwave stirring every 20 seconds. Stir until smooth and spread over the almond butter layer. Sprinkle the chocolate with flaky salt, if desired. 
  3. Chill in the refrigerator until completely firm, about 2 hours. Let sit on the counter for 10 minutes before removing it and the parchment from the pan. Slice into 16 equal-sized pieces.
  4. Cover leftover bars tightly and refrigerate for up to 1 week. Enjoy!

Herbalicious Chimmichurri

Try this chimichurri sauce on grilled chicken, pan-fried tofu, cast-iron steak, poached fish, roasted vegetables, salads, and much more! The herbaceous-infused flavors play well with the fresh parsley, savory garlic, and bright lime juice. 

Makes: 1 cup sauce

Serving size: 2 tablespoons

Ingredients: 

  • 1 bunch Italian parsley (~2 cups), chopped
  • 4 each cloves garlic, crushed
  • 2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons prepared cannaoil
  • ½ cup extra virgin olive oil
  • ¼ cup red wine vinegar
  • 2 teaspoons freshly squeezed lime juice
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • ½ teaspoon kosher salt
  • Freshly ground pepper, to taste
  • Pinch red chili flake, or to taste

Directions:

  1. In the bowl of a food processor fitted with a metal blade, add the Italian parsley, garlic cloves, budder, extra virgin olive oil, red wine vinegar, lime juice, dried oregano, salt, black pepper, and red chili flake. Pulse until pureed. 
  2. Enjoy grilled steak, pan-fried tofu, avocado toast, roasted vegetables, tomato salad, poached fish, and much more!



A GLASS BLOWN FAMILY AFFAIR: Owning a store is a dream come true for Levitation’s father-daughter team

Levitation Gallery & Smoke Shop opened their doors in a Seekonk strip mall five years ago this month. This half-decade anniversary serves as a testament to Jonathan and Taylor Foster’s dedication to working together as a father-daughter team to provide a comfortable environment and showcase their love of both glass and family.

“It’s a family business,” Taylor says of the store. “We want the colors and vibes of the store to reflect on our love. We are trying to put out love.”

Opening the store was a dream come true for both Fosters. They’ve bonded during Taylor’s adult years and wanted to work together while being an independent family business where they could sell glass and other ‘cool gadgets.’ They tend to butt heads at times, but always even each other out and keep each other grounded. 

“The family part was a big deal to me,” Jonathan says. “It’s a joy to own a business with my daughter.”

“When I was growing up, my dad worked in a corporate job,” Taylor says of her father. “He was making good money, but he was never totally happy doing it. He always had a dream of owning a retail store and selling all the cool accessories that he enjoys. It’s both of our dreams becoming a reality together and being able to support ourselves over our creation.”

Levitation Gallery & Smoke Shop prides themselves on having a plethora of accessories to choose from, in addition to tye-dye, T-Shirts, ashtrays and rolling trays. They also sell glass-blown pipes and pendants, including pieces made by Taylor and her boyfriend and mentor, Dan Ottone

Taylor started blowing glass shortly after graduating high school. With Ottone’s guidance and classes, she became an experienced pipe and pendant maker. Though Levitation Gallery & Smoke Shop carries work by a variety of American glass artists, a lot of the hand pipes and pendants for sale are made by Taylor and Ottone. Ottone also distributes Taylor’s pieces through his wholesale glass business, Ottone Glassworks.

“Dan was my inspiration,” Taylor says happily. “I saw him blowing glass and thought it was really cool. Then we became a family! I love selling pipes that either Dan or I made. I get to see the person that gets to use the pipe.” 

“Glassblowing is a skill that takes time and practice to learn,“ Taylor adds. ”It can take many tries to perfect an item. The perfect pipe has proper airflow. The holes have to be the smallest in the bowl, then the carb, and finally the mouthpiece has to have the largest hole. We get the glass up to temperature then shape it, blow an even bubble at the end,  then pop a few holes.”

Having strong relationships with customers and local dispensaries is crucial to maintaining and growing Levitation Gallery & Smoke Shop. They want everyone entering the store to feel comfortable and accepted. 

“Our business continues to evolve and we have some exciting projects in the works. Announcements will be made in the near future,” Jonathan says when discussing the popularity, growth and evolution of Levitation Gallery & Smoke Shop.

“The goal of opening our business was to create an atmosphere that’s welcoming for any type of person that comes in,” Taylor says. “I have customers from 21-80. I want them all to feel comfortable asking questions. I don’t want people to feel afraid to come in and look around. We wanted to make a place where people could find the new coolest devices.”

Levitation Gallery & Smoke Shop is located at 1200 Fall River Rd in Seekonk, MA. 




New York Set A New Standard for Social & Economic Equity in Legal Cannabis: Can Rhode Island do the same?

It is the responsibility of each state that legalizes cannabis to incorporate the lessons learned from other states into any proposed laws and regulations. Wasn’t that the whole point of the “wait and see” argument we heard year after year from RI lawmakers, seemingly content to let millions of dollars bleed over the border into Massachusetts? I’m not sure how much research, data analysis or outreach has been going on over on Smith Hill these past ten years, but since I’ve been working with this issue I have seen very little progress in the conversation, particularly around social and economic equity in RI cannabis policy. The study commission created in 2017 (“News Analysis: RI to Study, not Legalize, Cannabis”, Sep 6, 2017) expired without ever filing a report (“News Analysis: What Are Your Elected Officials Smoking?”, Apr 18, 2018). If it weren’t for long-time champions like Senator Josh Miller (D-PVD), whose recent legalization bill is the best attempt at equity we’ve seen so far, I would be inclined to believe that lawmakers haven’t been listening at all. 

In fact, in his introduction of the bill (S.2430) at a recent Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Sen. Miller emphasized the importance of integrating recent outcomes from other states, as well as feedback from advocates and stakeholders, whose input, he said, “is not only important, but critical to the process of getting this right so we are in a position to vote on it… I feel strongly that this will result in a better bill.”

In Massachusetts, it has been six years since voters legalized cannabis, yet less than 5% of those eligible for expungement have had their records cleared, and only five of over 100 “social equity” licenses have actually been awarded. Those directly harmed by the criminalization of cannabis are still suffering that burden, and prospective business owners have struggled to access the capital, real estate, and education necessary to compete with corporate conglomerates and multi-state operators. Without specific strategies to address these barriers, Little Rhody will go the way of “Big Weed” before we know it. 

Let’s take a look at New York, where the new cannabis policy has raised the bar when it comes to legislating for true social and economic equity in cannabis.  Many of the policies laid out were clearly crafted to try to avoid the pitfalls experienced by some of the early states and to include social equity within legalization.The NY Marijuana Regulation & Taxation Act lays a framework for the strongest social and economic equity program we have seen thus far, especially when it comes to three key policy components: licensing, expungement, and social equity assistance funding. The program is both wide-reaching in scope and specific in language, with too many important provisions to include here, so it’s worth checking out the details (read the fact sheet at cannabis.ny.gov). Lawmakers should take notewe can both legalize cannabis this legislative session and ensure that we don’t leave some Rhode Islanders behind when we do.

Licensing

When it comes to issuing cannabis licenses, the devil is in the details. There are a few key parameters that have the potential to make or break the way a legal cannabis market is rolled out – and who profits from it. The number and type of licenses specifically designated for social equity applicants, as well as when they are awarded, can make a real difference when attempting to offer a leg up to communities that have been historically disadvantaged. In New York, 50% of all adult use licenses will be earmarked for social equity applicants – including women, minorities, disabled veterans and individuals from disproportionately impacted communities. The first licenses awarded will be to these groups, giving them a much-needed head start in the industry. Furthermore, the law will prioritize several low barrier-to-entry license models for social equity applicants – including delivery, microbusiness, cooperative and on-site consumption licenses – and any social equity license can only be sold or transferred to another qualified applicant (for at least three years). The two-tier market structure in New York doesn’t allow for vertical integration, which leaves more room for local businesses to compete with multi-state operators, and all non-equity license holders will be required to develop and implement a “social responsibility framework” for their businesses, and to annually report their progress to the Cannabis Control Board, or else their licenses will not be renewed. 

By contrast, RI is planning on offering the first retail licenses to the three existing medical marijuana dispensaries (which are all fully vertically-integrated, and owned by people who “knew a guy” at the right time) and they’ll be charged a hefty $125,000 license fee. 

But hey, it’s less than the $500,000 we’ve seen proposed so far – plus, it’ll all be going into the social equity fund, so all’s well that ends well, right? Not really, but at least under this law the dispensaries would be required to establish and maintain an agreement with a labor union – a move which is sure to be a welcome improvement for dispensary employees, who have tirelessly fought for their right to organize. 

In addition, 24 new retail licenses will be issued in six regions of RI, with six licenses reserved for social equity applicants, and six earmarked for worker-owned cooperatives. RI will be the first state to set aside licenses specifically for co-ops, and it seems we have tried to follow New York’s lead in terms of restricting the sale or transfer of a social equity or co-op license to only another eligible applicant. However, additional low barrier-to-entry license models are not fully fleshed out in this bill — rather, they are only listed as something the cannabis commission may recommend to the general assembly at a later time. The makeup of the commission will be a critical component to keep an eye on, as we cannot realistically expect equity to be prioritized if marginalized populations are not represented with a seat at the table.  Lawmakers should consider awarding more (and earlier) retail licenses to social equity applicants in RI, as well as taking inspiration from New York when it comes to creating a more accessible market structure and carefully defining “social responsibility” requirements for non-equity businesses.

Automatic (State-Initiated) Expungement

In states with automatic (state-initiated) clearance of criminal records for marijuana violations – including New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut — hundreds of thousands of citizens have been granted relief from the many burdens of a criminal conviction. By contrast, in non-automatic states, less than 5% of those eligible have actually received relief; expungement provisions in those laws turned out to be nothing more than lip service. So far, RI is setting itself up to be part of the latter group, as evidenced by the proposal of a non-automatic expungement process. Let’s learn from New York.

Social Equity Assistance Program & Fund 

In New York, 40% of tax revenue from the new dispensaries will be invested back into communities harmed by the failed War on Drugs, which has always disproportionately impacted people of color and will continue to do so in the age of legalization, unless we start making these changes now. Through the New York State Community Reinvestment Grant Fund, community-based non-profit organizations and local governments will be able to apply for funding to support community revitalization efforts. The governor of New York has also earmarked $200 million in this year’s budget to support social equity businesses, mostly to be spent on finding, securing and renovating storefronts for retailers. This unique concept of creating “turnkey” operations – where the state takes on the burden of dealing with the intimidating New York real estate market so that prospective owners without the necessary experience don’t have to – is a novel example of the type of individualized and outside-the-box thinking that we will need in order to figure out how to build equity in various contexts. 

The recent proposal from Sen. Miller also includes a social equity assistance program and fund, which thankfully looks like it will be maintained separately from the black hole of the state treasury that is the “General Fund,” and is to be funded by annual fees from adult-use cannabis businesses. The fund is meant to be used for grants, technical assistance, workforce development and mentoring for social equity applicants, as well as programming intended to support restorative justice, jail diversion and other services for communities impacted by the War on Cannabis.

As far as expungement and licensing provisions, we already have clear data from other states to show which policies have fallen short of achieving their purpose, and what the new standard for social and economic equity in cannabis law should be. I believe the most critical element is who is included in (or excluded from) the regulatory and decision-making processes, how exactly the social equity assistance program is funded and implemented, and if we choose to continue to criminalize Black and brown Rhode Islanders while the state and its power players profit.  Our legal cannabis market will only be made better by the diversity of Rhode Islanders that will make it up, and it’s beyond time for lawmakers to listen and learn from those who have lived experiences that can inform, influence and improve our cannabis industry.