Smoke in the Lobby: Organized policy influencing within the cannabis industry

Image by Gina Lerman.

The total sales by dispensaries in RI in 2023 was approximately $108 million, according to the Office of Cannabis Regulation. With that amount of revenue, and a slippery legal context in the years following cannabis legalization, I was interested to learn more about cannabis lobbying groups in Rhode Island.


Lobbying is a professional or organized attempt to influence legislation by interacting with policymakers, on behalf of an individual, organization, or group of organizations. As a citizen, you could go up to a lawmaker and express your opinion about a certain issue and advocate for a change in the law. However, lobbyists are paid to do this, so they can dedicate time, expertise, and other resources to advocate for the issue they or their client is championing.

At the time of writing this article, there are 10 registered marijuana lobbyists and five registered lobbying firms. One of the registered organizations is Green Thumb Industries, which is a national company with dispensaries across the country, in 14 different states. According to their website, they report a revenue of $1.1 billion nationally for 2023, which was a 4% increase from the year prior.

So what does a billion-dollar national company have to do with Rhode Island’s cannabis industry? Green Thumb Industries owns RISE Warwick, their first dispensary in RI. According to the Better Business Bureau, RISE is registered as Summit Medical Compassion Center, which was reported as the top earning RI dispensary in 2023, pulling in $32 million in total sales.

Green Thumb Industries is represented by Capitol City Group, a Providence-based professional lobbyist firm that boasts “over twenty-five years of experience delivering meaningful results for our clients,” according to their website. The RI Department of State’s Lobby Tracker shows that Capitol City Group represents 17 different companies and organizations, ranging from cannabis to the Rhode Island Judiciary to hospice care. Green Thumb Industries pays them a rate of $5,000 per month to represent their interests in the legislature. It looks like that fee went down from what they were paying pre-legalization — a financial report from February 28, 2022, just days before the RI Cannabis Act passed, showed a rate of $7,000 per month.

Capitol City Group has so far contributed a combined $21,700 to Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse’s 2024 election cycle for campaign committee and leadership PAC; for Sen. Jack Reed, they have contributed a combined $16,500. Capitol City group did not return Motif’s request for comment.

While Capitol City Group represents Green Thumb Industries, a national company with one dispensary in RI (small potatoes for Green Thumb, compared to its 12 dispensary locations in Florida), other lobbyists within the Rhode Island cannabis space include the ACLU, representing individual rights of cannabis users, and Sensible Cultivators for Intelligent Reform (SCIR), representing the interests of the 60 cultivators in RI. Nancy Lavin reported earlier this year in an article in the RI Current, “Is cannabis industry cash building budding relationships on Smith Hill?” that “SCIR paid [lobbyist Jeff] Padwa $15,000 for lobbying activity in 2021, according to the Rhode Island Secretary of State’s lobby tracker. In 2022, Padwa received $5,000 for his lobbying efforts on behalf of cultivators, and in 2023, $60,000.”

The specific legislative interests of national dispensaries like RISE are less clear to me than those of SCIR, who is advocating for more cannabis retail in RI. As of 2024, there are only seven dispensaries in the state, limiting the cultivators’ ability to sell. They can grow the product, but outlets are limited, with retail licenses pending under bureaucratic review. The application fee for a cannabis retailer license is $30,000, further limiting the scope of retail owners in RI.

I spoke with ACLU RI’s executive director Steven Brown regarding their status as a registered cannabis lobby group. When asked what policy the organization is currently pursuing to ensure the rights of individuals within the RI cannabis industry, he replied: “The comprehensive law that legalized the sale of cannabis included provisions that we felt unduly limited some people with criminal records from working in the field. We have recommended amendments to the law to address that issue.”

In a post-Citizens United America, corporate spending can greatly influence legislative pathways. The smaller, local dispensaries will surely wake up to this reality sooner or later, while national companies like Green Thumb are already well versed in the practice of hiring lobbyists to stay in tune with legislation that might harm — or bolster — business. The odd ecosystem of lobbyists within the current RI cannabis space — composed of lawyers, former and future politicians, human rights watch dogs, and other professional policy advocates — is as complex as the current mixed bag of corporate interest and policy equity that Rhode Islanders are seeking from the morphing cannabis industry.