Taking Back American Hemp: The Indigenous farmers leading “The New Green Revolution”

“I didn’t get into this for money. I got into this for love.” It was the end of a long and rainy primary day here in Rhode Island, and renowned environmental advocate and indigenous organizer Winona Laduke was the first speaker to be featured at URI’s Honors Colloquium. The theme for this fall is ‘Just Good Food,’ and Laduke’s ardent callbacks to a time “when America [truly] was great” (think clean water, millions of buffalo, and biodiverse food systems – not old men in red hats) felt like a fitting way to start the long-running lecture series. Given the topic, I was pleasantly surprised when the projector screen advanced to a photo of Laduke standing tall amongst an even taller sea of green – the hemp fields she has been cultivating on tribal land in northern Minnesota stretching above her head and beyond the frame of the photo. 

For indigenous farmers welcoming cannabis seeds back into American soil, hemp may be one of the missing links in a “pre- and post-petroleum” agricultural model — one that could empower tribal nations to seek social, economic, and environmental justice through the unique opportunities of a versatile crop like hemp. Or as Laduke calls it, “a magical plant for the future.” Hemp is widely known to be a forgotten hero of the past, as well. I can recall hearing that at some point in modern American history, farmers were actually required to grow a quarter acre each of hemp and flax, but I did not learn until now that the word “canvas” is actually derived from the word “cannabis” — that’s how commonly used the fiber was in the past. The Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 legally separated hemp from marijuana as a crop, and hemp production was encouraged by the government during the 1940s as part of agricultural efforts during World War II. However, under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, hemp was officially classified and criminalized alongside heroin and marijuana as a dangerous, addictive drug. If only we had continued to embrace hemp as the amazing renewable resource it is, instead of rejecting it as a narcotic that would be inaccessible to farmers for decades… According to Laduke, “We had a choice between a carbohydrate economy and a hydrocarbon economy, and we made the wrong choice.” She believes that everything we have done with oil, could have been done with hemp — a regenerative crop that can remediate soils and sequester carbon faster than any other field crop.

Winona has partnered with the Anishinaabe Agriculture Institute in Minnesota to cultivate and test fiber hemp varieties for textile processing on tribal land, as well as provide community programming and hemp seed stock to other tribes with an interest in the crop. The vision of their Tribal Hemp Initiative is clear – “We need a New Green Revolution, which deconstructs industrial agriculture and rebuilds soil and community. At the center of that revolution in this region is industrial hemp, which can transform the materials economy…we are working to restore food ways, rematriate seeds, and make a new economy; one based on local food, energy and fiber.” By the end of her talk, the significance of Winona’s Hemp as a key component of her talk on “Restoring Indigenous Foodways in a Time of Climate Change” became abundantly clear.

Growing hemp can also be an act of defiance. At least it must have felt that way for Alex White Plume, a tribal leader who has been growing hemp on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota since the nineties, long before it was considered legal or lucrative. Despite an ordinance passed by the Oglala Lakota in 1998 legalizing the cultivation of hemp on Pine Ridge, White Plume’s hemp fields were raided multiple times by the DEA between 2000 and 2002 (sound familiar?!), and he was finally ordered to stop growing in 2004. It would be another 12 years before the federal ban on hemp was lifted and Alex could pick up where he left off. Alex’s experience is “illustrative of the way indigenous people have been stymied in their attempt to use hemp as an economic driver for themselves and their communities.” (northeastern.edu) After the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill that legalized hemp production in the United States, states and tribal nations were encouraged to submit individualized hemp programs, as long as minimum requirements set by the USDA were met in each plan. 

These days, with the USDA finally back on the hemp train, over two dozen tribes have now had their hemp plans approved, but there are still plenty of barriers that can present challenges for indigenous farmers entering the hemp space. In order to strengthen the economic multiplier effect of the hemp industry for tribal nations, there will need to be an integrated network of producers, manufacturers, and ancillary businesses working together to create a diverse and competitive industry. That’s why Chickasaw Nation member Aaron Fournier started Native American Hemp, an Oklahoma-based company that offers support services to assist tribes across the country in navigating the various points of entry into the hemp industry. Similarly, other organizations like the Native American Cannabis Alliance, and the Indigenous Production Trade Alliance, work to build community and industry support among tribal nations. 

*URI Honors Colloquium lecture series takes place on Tuesday evenings at 7pm, through Dec 13 – located at Edwards Auditorium in Kingston and streaming online

Opinion – Cannabis Bans on 31 of 39 Local RI Ballots: Revenue implications could be substantial

See how this turned out.

Prohibiting licensing of cannabis-related businesses directly defies the underlying principle of the new Cannabis Act that legalized adult recreational use, which is to regulate it like alcohol. Allowing local bans of cannabis-related business was a necessary political compromise to get the legislation passed after well over a decade of stalling and obstruction.

As Sen. Joshua Miller (D-28), the prime sponsor of the Cannabis Act in the RI State Senate, told Motif  in 2020*, “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.” As with the failed national experiment of alcohol prohibition in the 1920s, bans are likely to provide incentives and encouragement for a black market, foregoing benefits of quality control and tax revenue.

“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.”**

Because the new act only allows municipalities to opt out if they have not already licensed cannabis-related businesses in the past, larger and urban communities will not see a referendum question like this: “Shall new cannabis-related licenses for businesses involved in the cultivation, manufacture, laboratory testing and for the retail sale of adult recreational-use cannabis be issued…?” Such a question is on the local ballot in 31 of the 39 municipalities in RI:

Barrington, Bristol, Burrillville, Charlestown, Coventry, Cumberland, East Greenwich, East Providence, Glocester, Hopkinton, Jamestown, Johnston, Lincoln, Little Compton, Middletown, Narragansett, Newport, New Shoreham, North Kingstown, North Providence, North Smithfield, Richmond, Scituate, Smithfield, South Kingstown, Tiverton, Warren, Westerly, West Greenwich, West Warwick, and Woonsocket.

(The eight cities and towns not voting on bans are Central Falls, Cranston, Exeter, Foster, Pawtucket, Portsmouth, Providence, and Warwick.)

While local bans are being considered primarily in less-populated areas, these would cover a large amount of real estate, possibly making it difficult for their residents to lawfully access retail cannabis products without traveling halfway across the state. Of course voters may shoot down a lot of these bans: It is difficult to imagine that such cities as Johnston, Newport, North Providence, and Woonsocket, which are certainly not rural at all, would really expect that a local ban could succeed, and it would be downright strange for South Kingstown, the home of the state flagship University of Rhode Island, to think that banning retail sales would be a step forward.

Aside from surrendering tax revenue for cannabis-related businesses, proponents of bans would be shifting whatever problems might be associated with such businesses to neighboring municipalities or even to neighboring states. It is obvious that forcing alcohol purchasers to drive for a half-hour each way to reach the nearest liquor store would have undesirable consequences. Why such NIMBYism (“not in my back yard”) is acceptable with cannabis but not alcohol is mystifying.

How the election results shake out will determine the consequences, and there are a number of different possibilities that could emerge. If only a few rural areas adopt bans, they will turn themselves into isolated islands among a sea of retail commerce that passes them by, and the practical effects will be minimal. If a large fraction of the proposed bans are adopted, especially in populous urban communities such as Newport and Woonsocket, then much of the benefits of the Cannabis Act will be lost to the existing black market that will not be brought under a regulatory and tax structure, and widespread defiance of the law will simply continue as it has for decades. If the middle ground occurs and there are many bans enacted but not too many, then the state will have a patchwork of permissive and restrictive areas scattered essentially at random, and customers will take their patronage to nearby retailers who pay taxes to neighboring jurisdictions.

Where local bans pass, as the black market and loss of revenue become apparent, there will be pressures to reconsider the bans through referenda at nearly every election in the future, until almost every such ban is repealed. In the meantime, the last vestiges of prohibition will keep struggling, zombie-like, against their inevitable demise.

UPDATE Nov 9, 2022: Of the 31 municipalities considering bans, 25 voted to allow and six voted to deny licensing of new cannabis-related businesses (“RI Election 2022 — Magaziner, McKee, cannabis sales win big: Democrats sweep all state general offices”, by Michael Bilow, Nov 8, 2022).

*(“News Analysis: Cannabis Proposal Focuses on Medical as Lead-In to Recreational“, by Michael Bilow, Apr 1, 2020)

**(“Pot in Every Pot: RI Legalizes Recreational Cannabis”, by Michael Bilow, May 25, 2022).

Changes, Challenges, and Opportunities: Cannabis business summit on legal cannabis industry in RI

As I clipped on my name tag and walked into the Cannabis Business Summit on a recent crisp September morning, every table seemed to be filled to capacity with business professionals, hot coffees in hand and pockest full of business cards at the ready. Alongside the networking opportunity, those in attendance were surely hoping to get the latest scoop on the state of legal cannabis in RI, and what that might mean for their professional lives.

One panel focused on the emerging adult-use cannabis industry in RI, featuring local legal and financial experts in the space, as well as familiar faces like Senator Josh Miller, one of the foremost legislative champions of cannabis policy at the State House. Among the issues facing cannabis businesses in RI, it seems that complications related to banking, zoning, and business insurance remain the foremost concerns for cannabis entrepreneurs. Beyond raising capital, Miller said, “security was the biggest priority” for the stakeholders he met with, including the many “private security” services offered by retired law enforcement professionals looking to make a second career out of creating and managing security protocols for legal cannabis facilities. 

All irony aside, there are very detailed regulations for security when it comes to medical marijuana facilities in RI, according to Matthew Santacroce of the Department of Business Regulation, and those requirements will remain the starting point for the adult-use industry, due to the hybrid licensing approach that will allow existing medical dispensaries to be the first to serve both the medical and adult-use markets. 

While strict regulations can certainly be costly for business owners, it doesn’t help that the RI cannabis market has been shrinking, at least according to those who spoke on the second panel, addressing challenges and opportunities in the nascent industry. Spencer Blier, CEO and Co-Founder of Mammoth, Inc. echoed the frustrations of many cultivators in the state, who have watched helplessly as wholesale flower prices in our state have fallen to less than half of those in neighboring Massachusetts, where more retailers and fewer cultivators create a market dynamic that is much different than in RI. According to Blier, advertising restrictions as well as packaging and labeling requirements can make it difficult for a small business to develop brand recognition in traditional ways, and social media marketing has been critical for companies like Mammoth, even in smaller markets such as RI.

Cannabis is really “an agricultural industry at heart,” according to Dr. Jonathan Martin of Pure Vita labs, who compared  it to that of traditional wine production — so building a strong brand identity is even more important for small businesses that hope to stand out among corporate competition and out-of-state operators. Senator Miller shared a similar sentiment during his panel, advising that “[to] preserve the personality and vitality of the industry… smaller is better.” The future cannabis commissioners “will have a lot of work to do,” he said, “[in order to] avoid takeover from big finance.”

While “a well-funded group could easily control the entire market,” Santacroce admits, the new adult-use industry also presents an “opportunity to bring a diverse and competitive market array” to the table, and he, too, will be looking to the Cannabis Commission to create a solid framework for licensing — one that deals with any loopholes that favor corporate competitors, as well as designates new and innovative license types that will help create a diverse and competitive industry in our state. 

While I always welcome increased and ongoing public discourse around these issues, as I looked around the event I couldn’t help but wonder what (or whom) it was all for. Perhaps it was a combination of the $65 ticket price (hot continental breakfast included, don’t worry), the overwhelming lack of demographic diversity in both the panelists and audience alike, and the noticeable absence of any substantial dialogue around cannabis equity issues, but the event felt like more of the same old tropes when it comes to business, the cannabis industry, and RI in general – it is more about money, connections, and “who you know” than anything else. As it happens, the Business of Cannabis Summit was actually reflecting the present and future of the RI cannabis industry – if we don’t commit to doing better, that is. 

Ed note: There is also a Cannabis Entrepreneurial Workshop by the Cannabis Career Institute coming up, either Sat, Oct 8 or Sun, Oct 9 for $299 for a full day of tips, strategies and tactics. cannabiscareeninstitute.com

The Wonderful Women of Weed: Locals defy gender trends

While national figures show that the number of women in leadership positions within the cannabis industry is on the decline as the industry expands, some locals have defied this trend, becoming trailblazers in the Ocean State’s newest (legal) industry. Here are the stories of just a few of the wonderful women of weed in Rhode Island:

Emily Cotter, Lovewell Farms

A lifelong Rhode Islander, Emily got her start in the cannabis space as President of the University of Rhode Island’s chapter of Students for Sensible Drug Policy, a youth-led network dedicated to ending the War on Drugs. During her time at URI, she was involved in the campaign to decriminalize cannabis in Rhode Island, and also helped organize Hempfest, a yearly musical festival on the University Quad that helped raise awareness about the damages caused by marijuana prohibition. 

Since leaving college, Emily has stayed heavily involved in the RI cannabis space. In addition to her work with Yes We Cannabis RI – where she helped encourage the legislature to pass cannabis legalization and automatic expungement of cannabis-related offenses – Emily is also Co-Founder and COO of Lovewell Farms, a hemp farm and wellness company based in Hope Valley that uses sustainably grown CBD to make high-quality products. Despite the intense competition in the CBD space, Lovewell’s use of locally grown cannabis and commitment to using only the best ingredients has allowed the company to gain a dedicated customer base. [ed note – Cotter is also a regular contributor to Motif]

Tanya Luongo, Cannalytics RI

As a strong believer in the benefits of medical cannabis and as someone who previously spent 15 years as the director of an environmental lab, Tanya Luongo was the perfect person to help start a cannabis testing laboratory in Rhode Island. Unhappy with the quality of the cannabis testing lab she previously worked at, Tanya and co-founder Mike Pytell fled to start Cannalytics RI in 2021.

As one of the three licensed cannabis labs in the state, Cannalytics RI helps ensure that medical cannabis used by patients is free of contamination and properly marked for potency. 

Rhode Island only implemented mandatory third-party testing for medical cannabis in 2021, so Cannalytics RI has been a key player in helping the state’s testing scene get caught up with cannabis markets in other states, including the implementation of low-level beverage extraction procedures and analysis methods that had not been previously available at other labs in the state. 

Despite the fact that the company was founded only a year ago, Cannalytics RI has already become an important player in improving the quality of RI’s cannabis industry. 

Jessica Gorman, Seawitch Medicinals

In the early days of the medical cannabis program in RI, Jessica Gorman and her friends were constantly lamenting the lack of available products on dispensary shelves. Determined to rectify this situation herself, she founded SeaWitch Medicinals in 2014. The company has since grown into one of the leading providers of cannabis infused products in the state.

The Newport-based company makes a variety of tinctures, topicals, teas, and other non-smokable cannabis products in small batches, using only the finest ingredients. SeaWitch has even gotten into the cannabis beverage game, releasing a line of infused tonics that come in tantalizing flavors such as white grape and spiced apple. 

Medical patients can currently find SeaWitch products at Greenleaf, Summit and Sweetspot Dispensaries.

Adina & Sasha Birnbaum, Talaria

Talaria is a Providence-based cannabis cultivator that specializes in growing small-batch, craft flower, and is one of the few women-owned licensed cultivators in Rhode Island. After spending some time in the Pennsylvania cannabis industry, Adina Birnbaum moved to Rhode Island and started Talaria with the help of Brent VanZile, a local cannabis grower and consultant. The business is truly a family affair: Adina’s daughter Sasha also works for Talaria. 

When asked if she had any advice for women looking to get into the cannabis industry, Adina told me, “GO FOR IT!  Women are needed in this industry and there are very few of us in Rhode Island. The percentage of women cannabis consumers is growing significantly, but the number of women in C-level positions in cannabis is falling. In Rhode Island Talaria is one of the only women-owned cultivation businesses. We make up less than five percent of the industry here.”

Talaria flower is available at all four of the medical dispensaries that are currently open in the state, and Adina is excited for the opportunity to sell their products to recreational consumers once sales begin in the state.

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.