Rhode Island Lawmakers Mull Fix For Medical Pot Program

Robert Celt

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The choices include strawberry sour diesel, Sakonnet Bay blue dream, chocolope, mango haze, pineapple express and blissful wizard.

Those aren't types of milkshakes. They're names of some of the strains of marijuana on the "menus" behind the counters at medical marijuana dispensaries across the state. Price tags: $200 to $350 an ounce.

And it's that business – the one that brought the state more than $1 million in revenue last year – that is now at the center of several legislative proposals as Governor Raimondo calls for an overhaul of the medical marijuana program – while other lawmakers call for an expansion and still others call for recreational legalization.

A description of the pineapple express strain on the menu at Summit Medical Compassion Center in Warwick reads: "A little chunky with a distinctive pineapple taste and smell. Very cerebral, clear and thought provoking in effect. Truly sweet taste. Medical uses include pain relief, mood stabilizer, stress, depression."

At the Thomas C. Slater Compassion Center in Providence, the dried flowers that can be smoked sit alongside marijuana infused baked goods. Chocolate chip cookies with 15 milligrams of the psychoactive element THC go for $3 each. A chocolate lollipop with 30 milligrams of THC is $5 and a Rice Krispy treat with 60 milligrams is $10.

But the dispensaries are only part of the medical marijuana pipeline in Rhode Island. There are more than 3,000 registered private growers, also known as caregivers. How much does marijuana cost if a patient buys from one of them?

The short answer: it's not really clear.

State law says caregivers can't make a profit. They can only "receive reimbursement for costs" associated with growing for a patient. Yet the law doesn't mandate that anyone watch those transactions, monitor how much marijuana is being bought and sold or regulate what's in the product.

Seth Bock, co-owner of the Greenleaf Compassionate Care Center in Portsmouth, said he believes caregivers charge within the same range as compassion centers. But as he pointed out, no matter how you slice it, caregivers currently have a financial advantage. Whatever they charge, they don't have to account for 7-percent sales tax and a 4-percent compassion center surcharge that the dispensaries must pay.

The state's 7-percent sales tax on $9.64 million in dispensary sales in fiscal 2015 produced $675,017 in revenue. The 4-percent surcharge generated another $385,724.

"This presents a noticeable and frankly unfair disparity for our patients," Bock said.

One certainty is this: The demand for medical marijuana is consistently increasing. There are currently 13,281 registered patients in the state. That's a 14-percent increase in just seven months from the 11,620 who were registered in August 2015.

State officials now acknowledge the problems with the medical marijuana program Rhode Island approved in 2006.

Governor Raimondo's idea for a fix, embedded in her 2017 budget proposal, is this: Make private growers pay steep registration fees – $150 to $350 per plant – for tracking devices, or tags. (The governor recently said she's considering a revised plan with lower fees.) Cut in half the number of plants private growers – either those growing privately for others or those growing for themselves can cultivate. Drop the surcharge on compassion centers from 4 percent to 3 percent.

Here's how she acknowledged the problem in her budget proposal: "The lack of transparency and oversight in the caregiver market makes it difficult to enforce limits on how much marijuana is grown and dispensed ... By charging for plant tags and reducing the compassion center surcharge, it will encourage greater price parity between the two supply sources."

Last week, speaking with reporters, the governor spoke about the problem even more bluntly.

"It's largely unregulated. You could go to the Health Department right now and apply to be a caregiver. If you don't hear back after a certain number of days, you're automatically granted your card," Raimondo said.

Raimondo's plan, likely to push more business to the state's dispensaries, is predicted to produce an additional $8.5 million for the state in fiscal 2017.

Not everyone believes the dispensaries operate at a disadvantage – not even within that camp. Bill Fischer, the lobbyist representing Blackstone Valley Compassion Center, a dispensary that brothers Jamie and Joshua DeSousa hope to open if a law doubling the number of compassion centers is approved, said they aren't concerned about the caregivers' price point.

"The perception that there is price discrepancy between caregivers and compassion centers is likely based upon the way the centers have operated over the last two years, with a reliance on buying and reselling marijuana from those same caregivers," Fischer said. "If the current centers were sourcing more of their product from their own unlimited grows, they would have more than enough flexibility to offer cheaper prices and match or even beat caregiver prices."

Fischer argued that additional competition from more compassion centers will reduce the price of medical marijuana.

And, he added, "It will help to better prepare the state for the taxation and legalization of the recreational market by increasing the current infrastructure now in place."

The conversation about how to address the shortfalls of the medical marijuana program take place alongside a push for legalization. Proponents argue that if it's revenue Rhode Island is after, the state should not look to those who are prescribed the drug for medical reasons, but to those who would happily pay to use it recreationally.

Attorney General Peter F. Kilmartin is acknowledging the urgency of the proposals swirling around the State House by convening a group of officials from states that have legalized marijuana along with other industry experts to talk about the issues at an April 6 forum.

Among the challenges: How to allow a medical market and a recreational market to exist in the same state with competing sets of regulations. As a recent report by a Special Massachusetts Senate Committee on Marijuana noted, in states that have legalized, medical strains are typically grown alongside recreational strains at medical dispensaries, which often end up serving both markets.

"Legalization proponents are quick to mention the perceived financial benefits of the taxation of legalized marijuana and lead with a sense of urgency about getting into the game before neighboring states do; however, there is little to no discussion about the real and significant regulatory, public-health and law-enforcement consequences of legalizing marijuana," Kilmartin said.


News Moderator: Robert Celt 420 MAGAZINE ®
Full Article: Rhode Island Lawmakers Mull Fix For Medical Pot Program
Author: Jennifer Bogdan
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Website: Providence Journal
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