PAWTUCKET, R.I. — Joseph Dwyer, 74, stopped into a Pawtucket cannabis dispensary on Wednesday afternoon, browsing the offerings on an iPad with the help of a sales associate known as a “budtender.”
He opted for the pre-rolled joints — “I have arthritis,” he explained — and was on his way.
The showroom replete with marble countertops, a cascading waterfall, and backlit edible displays is a far cry from how Dwyer said he once purchased “grass,” as he called it, as a teenager in 1967 on the black market in South Providence.
“It’s safer now,” Dwyer noted, adding that he uses cannabis for his leg pain in addition to recreational enjoyment.
As of Friday it’s been exactly one year since legal recreational cannabis sales began in Rhode Island, and monthly sales have roughly doubled since the launch, generating more than $60 million, while medical marijuana sales have steadily decreased.
Technically, recreational cannabis has been legal in Rhode Island since May 2022. But the Dec. 1 start of sales felt like the true start of the legal cannabis era, where an eighth of bud is now as easy to pick up as a bottle of cabernet.
One year in, Rhode Island is still working to fully set up its new industry. It took longer than anticipated for Governor Dan McKee to name members to the newly-created Cannabis Control Commission, and the three-member board has not yet taken over control of the industry. Up to 24 new stores authorized by the legalization law are not opening anytime soon.
As a bridge measure in the meantime, Rhode Island allowed recreational sales to start at seven previously-authorized medical marijuana dispensaries on Dec. 1 of last year, and an eighth store is expected to open in Woonsocket soon after a protracted legal battle with the city.
The customer base keeps growing.
“It’s been a successful year,” said Joe Pakuris, one of the owners of Mother Earth Wellness, the Pawtucket retailer. “I think there’s a lot more growth to be seen in Rhode Island.”
According to the R.I. Department of Business Regulation, which still regulates the market until the CCC takes over, $63 million worth of recreational cannabis was sold during the first 11 months. November sales data is not yet available, but is expected to be in line with October, deputy DBR director Matt Santacroce said.
If so, sales from the first year of legal recreational cannabis would surpass $70 million.
In the first month of sales, $3.4 million worth of recreational cannabis was sold throughout the state. In October, the most recent month available, that number was $7 million.
“A lot of people still don’t even realize cannabis is recreationally legal in Rhode Island,” Pakuris said, estimating that he gets 100 to 200 new customers per day out of roughly 1,500 daily customers.
Pakuris got in some hot water over the summer after putting up billboards on I-95 displaying his store name, despite a ban on advertising tied to the medical marijuana licensing rules. The state ordered him to take the signs down, but the rule seemed patently unfair to most, especially since Massachusetts businesses were allowed to advertise in Rhode Island, but Rhode Island businesses were not.
The advertising ban was lifted in June, and Pakuris put the billboards back up. He said they have been helpful in alerting visitors to Rhode Island that cannabis is legal and for sale here. He’s also in the middle of building a drive-through.
“If your habit is to go to a place in Massachusetts on your ride home and you’ve been doing that for four years, it’s hard to break that habit,” Pakuris noted. “It’s going to take a few years to really energize this market and get our consumer base.”
Angie Riccio from Pawtucket was one of those customers who used to shop at a dispensary in Attleboro, and has now switched to the Pawtucket store where she’s partial to vegan gummies.
“I think it was definitely a long time coming,” she said, browsing glass pipes with two friends for a holiday gift. Her friend Chrisna O’Brien of Warwick said she likes the shopping experience, something that wasn’t prevalent in the medical-only market.
“It’s all about the atmosphere,” O’Brien said.
As the number of recreational shoppers go up, medical marijuana sales are simultaneously decreasing, reflecting the fact that many medical patients are switching to the recreational market, Santacroce said.
While medical cannabis is cheaper because of lower taxes, the cost of a doctor’s appointment and hassle of paperwork to get a patient card isn’t worth it for everyone now that it’s so easy to buy recreational cannabis.
Medical registrations have dropped down to 10,377 patients from a previous high of nearly 20,000. (Rhode Island accepts medical cards from other states, and those patients are not reflected in the numbers.)
Medical sales were nearly $4 million in December 2022 and dropped to $2.3 million in October 2023, according to the state figures.
When combining medical and recreational, the retail market has grown from $7.4 million in sales in December 2022 to $9.4 million in October of this year. The highest month of sales was in August, when the total topped $9.6 million, before dipping slightly in September and October.
“It’s one year, and so no one’s walking around here spiking the football having a big party,” Santacroce said. “We were focused on a transparent, compliant, glitch-free rollout of this market and by all accounts we’ve achieved that.”
Recreational sales for the current fiscal year are roughly on track to reach state budget-crunchers’ current projection of $76 million, which would translate to $13 million in tax revenue for the state and $2.3 million for local municipalities where the stores are located. (Recreational sales are taxed at 20 percent.)
Rhode Island did not meet its projected sales number for last fiscal year, which ended June 30, coming in about $6 million under the $41 million in recreational sales anticipated.
The taxes generated from the sales go into a combination of the state’s general fund, a fund that covers the cost of running the cannabis program, and local municipalities’ budgets.
The industry has had its issues; DBR recently cracked down on a licensed cultivator, Fire Ganja, which was found to have thousands of untagged plants and products at its Warwick facility. State regulators require plants and products to be tagged and tracked in a computer system from seed to sale.
The company agreed to pay a $625,000 fine and had to destroy the untagged product, but was ultimately allowed to stay open.
“If one business is cutting corners, either intentionally or unintentionally, it creates an incentive for every business to cut those corners and then we don’t have a transparent, safe regulatory environment,” Santacroce said.
He noted that the computer system is tracking test results, and regulators know in real time when a product passes or fails various safety tests in the lab. If products are not tagged and tracked, they shouldn’t ever end up in stores, Santacroce said.
“When we’re talking about what’s getting into the hands of the customer, we have to have 100 percent confidence that that was, from seed to sale, happening in licensed facilities in Rhode Island.”
When it comes to customers’ favorite products, the biggest moneymaker is pre-packaged bud, also known as raw flower, that goes for as low as $30-$35 for an eighth of an ounce, according to dispensary menus.
In October there was $4 million worth of flower sold in Rhode Island, compared to roughly $2 million in pre-rolled joints, $1 million in edibles and $1 million in vape cartridges. (Other ways to purchase cannabis include concentrates, oils and tinctures.)
RISE Dispensary in Warwick, formerly known as Summit, has overtaken the Slater Center in Providence as the state’s top seller, bringing in $2.8 million in sales in October, according to state figures. Mother Earth Wellness brought in $1.9 million, while the Slater Center was the third-highest seller at $1.8 million.
The other stores that are open include Solar Therapeutics in Warwick, Sweetspot dispensary in Exeter, Greenleaf Compassion Center in Portsmouth and Aura of Rhode Island in Central Falls.
The first year of legal sales has also benefitted the 60 licensed growers in Rhode Island, many of whom have been beating the drum for years about having practically nowhere to sell their products after being licensed by the state years ago to cultivate cannabis.
Until recently, the growers could only sell to three medical dispensaries, all of which also grew their own cannabis. (It’s illegal to sell across state lines.)
Now, not only has the market expanded to recreational customers, but several stores have opened that do not grow their own product and can only buy from the licensed cultivators.
That has helped increase wholesales from cultivators to retailers from $1.1 million in December of last year to $3.5 million in October of this year, the most recent month available.
“It’s a very slow rollout so far,” said Karen Ballou, owner of Cultivating RI, a grow facility in West Warwick. “We all thought recreational was going to be the cure-all for the industry, and we’re not there yet.”
She said her business is close to breaking even, but is not yet turning a profit. She said the state needs more stores, especially in areas that don’t already have one.
“Obviously we’re in a better position than we were a year ago,” she said. “We can all supply the market.”
When will more stores open?
Rhode Island’s legalization law called for 33 stores total, which means 24 new stores in addition to the nine medical dispensaries authorized by previous state laws.
Of those, six new retail licenses are required to be set aside for social equity applicants and another six for worker co-operatives.
The new Cannabis Control Commission will decide how exactly to issue the licenses once it opens up the application process; the state previously used a random lottery system, but some have clamored for a merit-based system.
The commission has to first set rules and regulations for the industry, after which the panel will finally take over control from the Department of Business Regulation. The commission has been holding public meetings for five months and “expects a robust meeting schedule in 2024 that will begin the process of finalizing its regulations,” commission chair Kimberly Ahern said in a statement.
Ahern stopped short of saying new stores would be open next year.
“Our overall goal is still to have applications open in 2024 but that is dependent on multiple factors that will make this an iterative process,” Ahern said. “We understand the sense of urgency for some, but it is our goal that this be a thoughtful process.”
“It’s very frustrating, because we need the stores in order for growth in the industry,” Ballou said. “They need to expedite the timeline.”
Pakuris said he hopes Rhode Island looks with caution at Massachusetts, which has a thriving market but no cap on how many retailers can be licensed. There are currently more than 300 licensed stores.
“Massachusetts is oversaturated,” Pakuris said. “There’s too many stores, way oversupply. I just hope we don’t follow that path and go down that road.”