Activists call on Senate to ask questions of new cannabis board nods 

SAM MARVIN, a field worker with United Food and Commercial Workers Local 238, speaks in front of the State House on Thursday, May 25, 2023. The Rhode Island Cannabis Justice Coalition called for the state Senate to vet Gov. Dan McKee’s three nominees for the state’s Cannabis Control Commission with a focus on racial, social, and economic justice. /RHODE ISLAND CURRENT / KEVIN G. ANDRADE

PROVIDENCE – A small group of social justice advocates gathered in front of the Statehouse Thursday to call on the Senate to use a social justice lens when vetting the governor’s three nominees for the state Cannabis Control Commission.  

Among them was David-Alan Sumner, a man once incarcerated on cannabis charges, who joined the R.I. Cannabis Justice Coalition to use his voice to draw attention to communities harmed by the War on Drugs, in particular communities of color.  

“Those closest to the problem are closest to the solution,” Sumner said. “It’s hard to have empathy and understanding if you have not walked in the shoes of someone from the BIPOC community.” 

Gov. Daniel J McKee has nominated his deputy chief of staff, Kimberly Ahern, along with former Rep. Robert Jacquard, and personal injury attorney Layi Oduyingbo to the Cannabis Control Commission. 

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The nominations came almost two years after the passage of the R.I. Cannabis Act, which lays out in statute the structures for the regulation and sale of cannabis products.  

While stopping short of criticizing the governor’s nominations, the coalition called on the Senate to thoroughly question the nominees before their confirmation. A date for an advice and consent hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee has yet to be set.  

“The Rhode Island Cannabis Justice Coalition is here to remind state officials that the work to construct a cannabis industry that is just, equitable, and centered around the communities most impacted by the war on drugs did not stop there,” Daniel Denvir, the group’s spokesman said in his opening remarks.  

“Incoming commissioners have the responsibility to continue consulting, uplifting, and working with members of impacted communities. We would really like to see the Senate question them on issues of social, racial, and economic justice.” 

The activists called on the Senate to actively question the nominees on issues of equity focused on race and economics. 

According to a 2020 report from the American Civil Liberties Union Rhode Island chapter, Black people were 3.3 times more likely to be arrested for cannabis related offenses than whites in the state. Activists say that this has perpetuated cycles of poverty in many neighborhoods populated by people of color.  

“The Senate takes its advice and consent responsibilities very seriously,” Senate President Sen. Dominick Ruggierio, a North Providence Democrat, told Rhode Island Current via email.  

“The appointments to the Cannabis Control Commission were referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is in the process of conducting a thorough vetting, as they would for any candidate before them for advice and consent.” 

Members of the General Assembly present to support the advocates included Rep. David Morales, a Providence Democrat, and Rep. Cherie Cruz, a Pawtucket Democrat. 

Rhode Island cannabis law — which the activists called among the most progressive in the nation — currently allows for 24 retail licenses. Of those, six are reserved for social equity applicants and another six are reserved for worker owned cooperatives. 

The activists said the worker cooperative provisions — allowing for dispensaries owned and operated by workers — could go a long way toward addressing issues in equity. 

A representative from United Food and Commercial Workers Local 238, a labor union which represents cannabis workers at several Rhode Island dispensaries, was there to show support. 

“It is critically important that those appointments are thoroughly vetted,” said Sam Marvin, a field staffer for the union. 

Among those looking to take advantage of the law’s social equity provisions were Tripp Hopkinton and Raquel Baker, workers involved in the PVD Flowers Cooperative, a cannabis dispensary that registered with the Secretary of State’s office in February. Though not yet open, the co-op is looking to open in Providence. 

“Cannabis is something that has historically been used against the people most affected by the system,” Hopkinton said.                  

Baker, who said she obtained a medical license for cannabis use in 2012, said the opportunity to work in the co-op has opened doors for her. 

“I can’t picture wanting to work anywhere else,” she said. “Co-op ownership has given me an opportunity I haven’t had before.” 

Kevin Andrade is a staff writer for the Rhode Island Current.

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