As I’m sure you’ve heard, our little state-that-barely-could has finally legalized cannabis for adult use. Awash with anticipation, consumers across the state could practically feel (and smell) it on the breeze, as doors flung open at five new dispensaries, making for a total of nine retailers open for business under a hybrid medical/adult-use license. At long last, the Green Rush has arrived in the Ocean State – but will it deliver all that advocates, license-holders, and consumers have hoped for?
It may be too soon to tell, but legal cannabis could not come soon enough for Rhode Island cultivators, would-be retailers, and ancillary businesses. “This milestone is the result of a carefully executed process to ensure that our state’s entry into this emerging market was done in a safe, controlled and equitable manner,” said Governor Dan McKee, who had laid out his own budget proposal to legalize marijuana last year, before conceding to a comprehensive and unified House/Senate bill that long-time legislative cannabis champions Scott Slater and Josh Miller finally managed to bring over the finish line.
Although we may have found ourselves in a bit of a David & Goliath situation when it comes to our neighbors to the north (who could have seen that coming?), there is no reason that RI should fall behind when it comes to creating the safe, controlled, and equitable cannabis industry that we all envision for our state. In fact, we are so behind the eight ball on legalization that we have limited excuses for continuing to mishandle important policy decisions — sure, RI is unique in many ways, and regulating cannabis is no easy task, but there are over twenty other adult-use cannabis states to learn from, and I sure hope that decision-makers are taking notes.
Safety and testing regulations on medical marijuana is one of those key policy areas that our state has struggled to roll out in a timely manner, with basic lab tests like potency and mold not required until 2021, and pesticide analysis only required starting in 2022. Now that we will have a more robust and competitive legal cannabis industry, we should expect only the highest quality, clean and tested cannabis products to be reaching store shelves. While it is widely understood that cannabis is safer than alcohol and generally pretty harmless, many Rhode Islanders are concerned — especially when it comes to youth access and driving under the influence. Of course, we don’t have enough data yet to know how things will play out, but we do know that youth cannabis use has remained steady or declined in states that legalize cannabis for adult use. Regardless, it will be critical for RI parents and educators to update their understanding of cannabis and associated risks for young people.
In recent years, the medical marijuana industry in RI has been largely regulated by the Department of Business Regulation (DBR), specifically the newly created Office of Cannabis Regulation. Although the department has historically been stretched thin by the daunting task of regulating cannabis, it was a relief to see a relatively smooth and quick transition to adult-use cannabis sales under the state’s hybrid licensing model. In November of 2022, interim deputy director Matt Santacroce said that the department was “pleased with the quality and comprehensiveness of the applications we received from the state’s compassion centers.” That is certainly something to hang your hat on – especially when it took Massachusetts two years to open doors after voters approved cannabis legalization there.
Although the DBR/OCR has been instrumental in transitioning smoothly into adult-use cannabis sales, there is still much to be determined when it comes to the specifics of the new rules. Not only will there be several new license structures to establish and regulate, but we still don’t know exactly who will be tasked with making those critical decisions. There will be two independent bodies charged with the mammoth task of crafting new regulations, and members will be a combination of legislative recommendations and those appointed by McKee. The makeup of these regulatory bodies will be an important precursor to what we can expect over the next few years, especially when it comes to accessibility and diversity.
So far, the most notable impact of the broad and bold social equity language included in the law has been the progress made on automatic expungement (see next page). It is estimated that 27,000 Rhode Islanders will be affected — way more than the 6,500 that were recently granted clemency by President Biden, but that’s another story.
Legalization of adult-use cannabis in RI, while an important stop along the journey to creating a safer and more equitable state, is definitely not the final destination. In fact, some might argue that the most difficult work lies ahead of us, as we navigate the unusual opportunities presented when creating an industry from scratch. From new licenses and regulations, to increasing access and creating jobs, there’s no question that it will be a great challenge — but if we do it right, it will all be worth it.