Legal Pot Hot Spot: Attleboro Embraces Its Place On The Rhode Island State Line

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Rhode Island’s top medical-marijuana regulator and its three licensed dispensaries disagree about how much of a threat lurks over the line in Massachusetts this summer when retail pot sales become legal there.

The dispensaries say they will lose business as customers opt to buy Bay State cannabis without the hassle of being a state-registered patient.

The additional competition is further reason the dispensaries give for opposing Gov. Gina Raimondo’s plan to quintuple the number of medical cannabis dispensaries in Rhode Island — from 3 to 15.

While regulator Norman Birenbaum says there are reasons those dispensaries need not worry — at least not immediately — one fact is indisputable:

Attleboro Mayor Paul Heroux is banking on Rhode Islanders visiting pot shops in his city.

How many shops? “Certainly more than five,” he says. “I don’t have an upper limit as to how many would be a problem…. We want the revenues. Very simple. It’s all about the revenues.”

“Promising” and “fortunate” is how the mayor describes his city’s proximity to Rhode Island’s densely populated capital region.

In his City Hall office, he enlarges a map on his tablet and runs his finger along Routes 95, 1 and 1a, cutting down through Pawtucket, Providence and East Providence. “Right here, by virtue of our location, it just puts us in a really good place.”

As Heroux sees it, “The will of the people said they want this here in Massachusetts and here in Attleboro. So okay, fine, if that’s what the citizens want, that’s what they can have. I’m not going to stand in the way of that.”

How many marijuana stores and grow centers eventually open in this old manufacturing city of 45,000 — perhaps the most receptive community to recreational marijuana so far along Rhode Island’s border — is actually up to the City Municipal Council.

It’s now drafting an ordinance to govern the growing and selling of marijuana. And Council member Todd Kobus, the council’s zoning committee chairman, says most council members want to move slower than Heroux.

“There is a lot of concern of this changing the culture of the city,” says Kobus. “I don’t want Attleboro to become the new Amsterdam or Colorado.”

Attleboro, like many communities across the Bay State, has imposed a temporary moratorium on recreational marijuana to give local officials time to draft zoning regulations for the new industry. But those bans are expected to expire this summer or a few months later.

In the meantime, marijuana businesses are still able to move ahead, seeking local approval by requesting permits for medical-marijuana operations first, knowing that state law will allow them to convert later to recreational outlets.

That’s been the case in Attleboro, where five establishments — proposed grow sites, stores or a combination — have received preliminary approvals of one kind or another in a long process requiring several steps.

Says Kobus: “If we just open the floodgates, it’s difficult to close that once we let people run rampant.”

Right now, the council is looking to approve five marijuana businesses, says Kobus. If things go smoothly, “perhaps there will be more.”

But Mayor Heroux says he wants the city’s new regulations “to be as permissive as possible

for two reasons. The first is we want to welcome the business here. But the second is if we’re too stringent, it opens us up to a lawsuit” from rejected marijuana applicants.

(Last month in Arkansas, a judge issued an injunction preventing the state’s medical-marijuana commission from awarding five cultivation permits after other businesses argued they’d been unfairly passed over.)