PROVIDENCE — The rules say that you don’t have to know a guy to enter Rhode Island’s multimillion-dollar medical marijuana business. All you have to do is get lucky and be one of six nonprofits to win a lottery that will take place sometime next year.
But that didn’t stop 28 entities from enlisting a sitting mayor, several former state lawmakers, and a phalanx of prominent lobbyists as they prepared their applications to open six new compassion centers — the places where people can purchase medical marijuana —throughout the state.
It’s a high-stakes competition in which organizations will spend tens of thousands dollars just to apply. And while medical marijuana alone turns a hefty profit, many of the players involved are betting that a more lucrative prize is on the horizon: the complete legalization of marijuana for adults, as in Massachusetts.
“People are assuming that the compassion centers will be the exclusive sellers of recreational marijuana,” said Jeff Padwa, an attorney who represents Rhode Island Care Concepts, which submitted four applications to open sites in Rhode Island.
Organizations — they’re required to be registered as nonprofits — had until Dec. 15 to submit applications and a nonrefundable $10,000 check to the state to win one of the six licenses, which will be split into six geographical zones, with only one compassion center allowed in each zone.
“It’s literally a roll of the dice, financially,” Padwa said.
No entity is allowed to open more than one compassion center, but well-capitalized ones submitted applications in multiple zones to increase their odds. The winners will be selected at some point in 2021, and they’ll be required to pay a $500,000 annual licensing fee to the state.
All told, 45 applications were filed by 28 nonprofits, and their boards include a who’s who of influencers across the state.
Zone 1: Burrillville, Cumberland, Glocester, North Smithfield, Smithfield, Woonsocket
The five nonprofits that submitted applications are: Livity Compassion Center, Medici Compassionate Care Center, New Leaf Compassion Center, Pinnacle Compassion Center, and RMI Compassion Center. One of New Leaf’s directors is listed as George Cancel, who owns one of the largest telecommunications construction companies in the region.
Zone 2: Central Falls, Johnston, Lincoln, North Providence, Providence
Ten organizations are vying for the license: Ascend Rhode Island Compassion Center, Faded Minds, Lucy Rozen Compassion Center, New Leaf Compassion Center, Perfect Union, Pinnacle Compassion Center, Rhode Island Care Concepts, Rhode Island Compassion Center, Sanctuary Medicinals, and Solar Therapeutics Rhode Island.
Perfect Union runs multiple marijuana dispensaries in California and lists lobbyists Rick McAuliffe and Jeffrey Taylor as two of its directors in Rhode Island. Ascend Rhode Island lists a former state representative, Robert Flaherty, as a director. Sanctuary Medicinals includes Mark Pelson, a former managing director at Providence Equity, and Frank McMahon, who runs the lobbying firm Advocacy Solutions.
Zone 3: Coventry, Foster, Scituate, West Greenwich, West Warwick
Zone 4: Cranston, East Greenwich, North Kingstown, Warwick
This is the most competitive zone, with 12 applicants: Cann Cure Compassion, Coastal Farms Wellness Center, Compassion Center of New England, Co-Op City, Enlite RI, Mammoth Health and Wellness, New Leaf Compassion Center, Perfect Union, Rhode Island Care Concepts, Rhode Island Compassion Center, Solar Therapeutics Rhode Island, and Winding Rhode Compassion Center.
J. Russell Jackson, an attorney and former state representative, is listed as the incorporator for Coastal Farms Wellness Center. Two of Enlite RI’s directors are Leonard Lopes, a lobbyist, and Peter Picknelly, who runs the Peter Pan bus company. Solar Therapeutics runs a dispensary in Massachusetts and lists Providence School Board president Nicholas Hemond as a director.
Zone 5: Charlestown, Exeter, Hopkinton, Narragansett, Richmond, South Kingstown, Westerly
The entities that filed applications include: Coastal Compassion Center, Compassion Center by Bonsai, Green Wave, Mammoth Health and Wellness, South County Compassion Center, Plant Based Compassionate Care, Rhode Island Care Concepts, Rhode Island Compassion Center, Solar Therapeutics Rhode Island, and Winding Rhode Compassion Center.
Mammoth already runs a “solvent-less extraction” cultivation facility in Rhode Island. Nicholas Salvadore, an executive with Aspen Blue Cultures marijuana company in Massachusetts, is one of the directors of Winding Rhode.
Zone 6: Barrington, Bristol, East Providence, Jamestown, Little Compton, Middletown, Newport, New Shoreham, Pawtucket, Portsmouth, Tiverton, Warren
The applicants include: Atlas Enterprises, Livity Compassion Center, Mother Earth Wellness, New Leaf Compassion Center, Rhode Island Care Concepts, and the Edward O. Hawkins Center. The Hawkins Center listed outgoing Central Falls Mayor James Diossa and former state senator Rhoda Perry as two of its directors.
While Rhode Island is committed to allowing compassion centers, it’s less clear whether lawmakers will legalize the sale of recreational marijuana in 2021.
Governor Gina Raimondo has proposed a system that would tax and regulate marijuana similar to the way that New Hampshire handles alcohol sales, but the COVID-19 pandemic wiped out any chance of that plan being approved in 2020.
After expressing strong opposition to legalizing marijuana in the past, Rhode Island’s Senate leaders have said they want to move forward with legalization in 2021. But incoming House Speaker Joseph Shekarchi said he isn’t ready to endorse a plan.
Last week, Shekarchi said he wants to hear from multiple stakeholders, including advocates, police chiefs, and representatives of the insurance companies, before deciding how to move forward.
“I wouldn’t bet the farm on it,” Shekarchi said.