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Rhode Island House speaker explains budget plan, including added marijuana dispensaries

Medical marijuana flowers await customers at the Minerva cannabis dispensary in Santa Fe, N.M. on June 11.
Medical marijuana flowers await customers at the Minerva cannabis dispensary in Santa Fe, N.M. on June 11.(Morgan Lee/Associated Press)

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Rhode Island’s House speaker explained to lawmakers what’s in the budget and why on Tuesday, answering several of their questions about the planned increase in medical marijuana dispensaries.

Democratic Speaker Nicholas Mattiello held a budget briefing Tuesday at the State House, which was open to lawmakers and reporters. The House is scheduled to vote Friday on the nearly $9.97 billion spending plan.

Mattiello told lawmakers he wanted to send a pro-business message, so many of the governor’s proposed taxes weren’t included. He didn’t go along with a proposal to charge large companies based on their number of employees using Medicaid, for example. Some lawmakers wanted that tax as a revenue generator, but Mattiello said he got a lot of pushback from businesses on it.

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He discussed the plan to expand the number of medical marijuana dispensaries from three to nine, and said there seemed to be no desire among the public or lawmakers to legalize recreational marijuana this year.

Representative Deborah Ruggiero, a Jamestown Democrat, asked him if cultivators would be put out of business, given that more dispensaries could grow marijuana. Mattiello said some dispensaries may choose not to grow marijuana but he wouldn’t want to tell them they couldn’t, which would create an unequal system.

Representative Anastasia Williams, a Providence Democrat, urged Mattiello to find a way to help communities and people hurt by the prosecution of drug crimes, now that the state is profiting off marijuana.

Some lawmakers asked Mattiello to revisit spending requests that weren’t granted, including for the Office of Veterans Affairs and the Institute for the Study and Practice of Nonviolence.

Representative Samuel Azzinaro, a Westerly Democrat and chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, asked him to give the Office of Veterans Affairs $200,000 that was requested to increase veterans’ services. Mattiello said he’d like to help veterans and he’d take another look, but doubts he can fund anything else.

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Representative Joseph Almeida, a Providence Democrat, said the nonviolence institute in Providence needs a $200,000 grant, like it received for the past two years, to continue its important work. Mattiello said the institute isn’t a state agency so it won’t be funded forever and the money was needed for libraries.

Mattiello said he’s not anticipating major changes to the budget but he’s still getting feedback.