On May 25, 2022, Gov. McKee signed the RI Cannabis Act into law. The law legalized cannabis for adult use and stated a three-member commission (aka the Cannabis Control Commission, CCC for short) would be responsible for overseeing the regulation, licensing, and control of RI’s medical and adult use cannabis markets. McKee had 40 days to name three nominees to the CCC. But 40 days came and went. Then another 40 days came and went, then another, and another. It wasn’t until May 17, 2023, nearly a year later, that McKee announced his three nominees:
Kimberly Ahern, chair. The current deputy chief of staff for the office of Gov. McKee and the former deputy counsel for the office of former Gov. Gina Raimondo. Ahern also spent nine years as special assistant to the attorney general.
Robert Jacquard. A self-employed attorney and retired police sergeant who served for 22 years with the Cranston Police Department. Jacquard was also a state representative from 1993-2021 and a lobbyist for a Portsmouth cannabis dispensary.
Layi Oduyingbo. The owner, founder, and managing attorney at ODU Law Firm in Cranston, who previously served as corporate counsel handling compliance and governance matters.
On June 13, McKee’s nominees were unanimously confirmed by the RI Senate. Ahern, Jacquard, and Oduyingbo will serve staggered terms and shape the immediate future of the RI cannabis industry.
The delay in establishing a CCC left some in the current cannabis industry frustrated and confused, particularly because Massachusetts dispensaries have been allowed to advertise in Rhode Island, but Rhode Island dispensaries have not been allowed to advertise in Rhode Island; that is, not until recently.
On June 15, the RI General Assembly passed legislation permitting the Office of Cannabis Regulation to provide forms, procedures, and requirements with respect to the advertising of cannabis products and several days later, on June 19, McKee signed it into law. Rhode Island dispensaries may now advertise in RI.
So what’s next? Rhode Island has its CCC, the advertising playing field has been evened, now what?
One area that Attorney Megan Sheehan of Sheehan & Associates Law would like the CCC to put their immediate focus is on the state’s criteria for social equity applicants.
“As it stands, there are four ways someone can become a social equity applicant, and two of those ways I think have the opportunity to be exploited,” said Sheehan. “One of them is, you hire 51% or more of people from an area of disproportionate impact or someone who has an expungeable drug offense. But the point of social equity is not about hiring into those jobs, it’s about creating ownership in communities that have been impacted by the war on drugs. That feels like a loophole that needs to be closed. The second is you can become a social equity applicant by saying you’ve demonstrated you’ve done projects in areas of disproportionate impact. So a developer or big business could say, ‘Okay we opened a factory in Pawtucket, so we’re a social equity applicant.’ That subverts the purpose of it. Those two criteria leave way too much of an opening for potentially everyone trying to be a social equity applicant without their having any meaning to it.”
We’ll probably never know why Gov. McKee’s nominations took nine times as long as they were supposed to, why the nonsensical advertising ban lasted as long as it did, and what damage all this has caused to those new to RI’s cannabis industry, particularly to cultivators (who were over licensed and hung out to dry), but one thing we do know is the statute required existing RI compassion centers, now permitted to sell adult-use cannabis, to pay $125k per center, money which was to be put into a social equity fund.
“That money should be sitting somewhere,” said Sheehan. “Something the CCC could do right away is establish a plan for how that money can be used to help social equity applicants, to provide [applicants] support in the application process, as opposed to when they receive a license. That’s very important because it’s very expensive to even apply. It requires finding a location, getting the zoning approval, entering into a lease or an option to purchase. So if you don’t have access to capital, and a large amount of capital, you’re really restricted.”
Although she remains “cautiously optimistic” about McKee’s CCC nominees and asserts what’s important are the policies and regulations the CCC put forth, Sheehan would’ve liked to have seen a nominee with more cannabis-specific experience and expresses concern over the law enforcement backgrounds of two of the three nominees: Ahern and Jacquard.
“Everything I’ve seen or heard Ahern and Jacquard say publicly is in line with the priorities around social equity, but I think it’s hard to step away from the lens of seeing this as a crime issue… I’m hoping that all members lean in and draw from the collective wisdom and experience of existing cannabis operators. All of my clients and people in the industry have a lot to say about what hasn’t worked and where we want to see improvements.
“It would be exciting for us as a state and for the CCC to see this as an opportunity to build upon and do better, to be an example for the country around how to build a cannabis industry that is transparent, centers social equity, and supports small business.”
To help advance social equity in the RI cannabis industry, you can attend an upcoming social equity policy salon happening July 17 from 6-7:30pm at Lovewell Farms, 174 Woodville Alton Rd., Hope Valley. RSVP at firstname.lastname@example.org.