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R.I. marijuana business hampered by delay in creating cannabis commission, legislators say

Until Governor McKee appoints the three-member commission, no new licenses can be issued or advertising allowed. A new bill will be heard Tuesday that would allow the state Office of Cannabis Regulation to handle advertising rules in the interim

Rhode Island Governor Daniel J. McKee hands his pen to state Representative Scott A. Slater, left, after he signed legislation legalizing recreational marijuana. The ceremony took place on the steps of the Rhode Island State House on May 25, 2022.Matthew Healey for The Boston Globe

PROVIDENCE — Nearly a year has passed since Governor Daniel J. McKee signed a bill making recreational marijuana legal in Rhode Island.

But McKee has yet to appoint anyone to the three-member Cannabis Control Commission, although that legislation called for the governor to submit names to the Senate for confirmation within 40 days of the May 25, 2022 effective date.

Now, the two lawmakers who introduced that legislation say the delay is hampering Rhode Island’s emerging marijuana market.

For one thing, they say, local highway billboards are emblazoned with ads for Massachusetts marijuana shops while Rhode Island businesses are prevented from posting those kinds of ads because of restrictions the Cannabis Control Commission could remove.

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Also, they say, Rhode Island cannot deliver on its “social equity” promises of providing marijuana licenses and jobs to communities hurt by the “War on Drugs” because there’s no commission to issue new retail licenses.

When asked when the governor will appoint commission members, McKee press secretary Olivia DaRocha said, “We are continuing to work through the process at this time. The statute requires that all candidates undergo a complete background check and investigation into potential conflicts prior to appointment. This process is ongoing.”

Representative Scott A. Slater, a Providence Democrat who introduced the bill in the House, said he does not understand the delay.

“Honestly, it’s affecting the program. We deferred different decisions to the Cannabis Control Commission,” he said. “I’m happy they are doing due diligence to get the right appointments, but it’s just affecting the industry right now.”

Senator Joshua Miller, a Cranston Democrat who introduced the bill in the Senate, said advocates had hoped the commission would be formed before the end of last year’s legislative session, and now the General Assembly is in the final two months of this year’s legislative session.

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“There is a lot of disappointment in the community and from those in the business about the pace of the industry without a commission,” Miller said. “There’s a real concern by current operators about advertising and getting ahead of the game, and there’s concern about making some progress on pathways for the other 24 licenses, including the social equity licenses.”

Rhode Island now has seven compassion centers that are licensed to provide medical and recreational marijuana for adults, and two additional licenses are pending for facilities in Woonsocket and Foster.

Once it’s formed, the Cannabis Control Commission is empowered to grant 24 more retail licenses. No more than four marijuana shops will be allowed in each of six geographic zones of the state. And of the four shops in each zone, one will be reserved for a workers’ cooperative applicant, and one will be reserved for a “social equity” applicant.

The law defines a “social equity” applicant as one “that has been disproportionately impacted by criminal enforcement of marijuana laws, including individuals convicted of nonviolent marijuana offenses, immediate family members of individuals convicted of nonviolent marijuana offenses, and individuals who have resided in disproportionately impacted areas for at least five of the last 10 years.”

But none of that can happen until the commission is formed.

The law requires the governor to appoint, with Senate advice and consent, three voting members of the commission, and it requires the House speaker to give the governor a list of three candidates for one seat on the commission within 30 days of the law’s effective date.

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House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi, a Warwick Democrat, provided McKee with a list of three candidates on July 21. That list included former Representative Robert B. Jacquard, a Cranston Democrat who now does lobbying at the State House; Stephen M. McCartney, a former Warwick police chief; and Rachel Russell, a real estate agent and small business owner.

But McKee has not chosen anyone from that list or named any nominees for the other two seats on the commission.

Miller said that over the years he has spoken to people who were interested in taking part in the Cannabis Control Commission. “I think there are many people who are enthusiastic about getting involved,” he said. “They are all sophisticated and seem qualified.”

Slater noted that in addition to the Cannabis Control Commission, the law calls for creation of a Cannabis Advisory Board that is supposed to include 11 voting members and eight non-voting members. The advisory board is to be chaired by a social equity officer appointed by the governor. But that hasn’t happened, either.

In his original proposal, Slater did not include a Cannabis Control Commission, and his bill would have left oversight to the state Department of Business Regulation. But the Senate advocated for the commission, and it was included in the final legislation.

Slater said it made sense years ago to limit advertising for Rhode Island’s medical marijuana program, but now adult-use marijuana is allowed in Rhode Island and in neighboring Connecticut and Massachusetts. And yet, he said, the only marijuana ads on Rhode Island billboards are for Massachusetts companies.

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“It’s silly not to allow Rhode Island companies to advertise,” Slater said, noting recreational marijuana is now legal. “I almost think it’s unconstitutional,” he said, drawing comparisons to past cases involving liquor advertising.

To address the problem promptly, Slater has introduced another bill, which will come before the House Corporations Committee on Tuesday, that would allow the state Office of Cannabis Regulation to handle advertising rules in the interim, pending formation of the Cannabis Control Commission.

Matthew Santacroce, chief of the Office of Cannabis Regulation, wrote a letter supporting Slater’s bill. “The current Medical Marijuana Program Regulations prohibit all cannabis advertisement, not just medical cannabis,” he wrote. “Still, out-of-state cannabis businesses, which are outside of OCR’s jurisdiction, are currently advertising within Rhode Island — disadvantaging the Rhode Island cannabis businesses that are not permitted to do so.”

Slater’s bill would give the Office of Cannabis Regulation the power to issue new requirements for Rhode Island marijuana advertising, Santacroce noted. “This will level the playing field for in-state businesses and better reflect the new reality of the adult-use market here in Rhode Island,” he wrote.

Jeffrey Padwa — a lobbyist representing Sensible Cultivators for Intelligent Reform, a group of the state’s largest marijuana cultivators — backed the bill. “Advertising should be allowed to inform patients and adult users where they can buy cannabis in Rhode Island,” he wrote.

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Jeffrey Bucci — a lobbyist representing Aura of Rhode Island, a compassion center and retail marijuana shop in Central Falls — also wrote in support of the legislation, saying, “This bill is essential for Rhode Island businesses.”


Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com. Follow him @FitzProv.