Discussions about marijuana sales now move to local level

A WORKER AT Mammoth Inc., one of the state’s licensed cannabis cultivators, tends to the marijuana plants at its Warwick location. / PBN FILE PHOTO/MICHAEL SALERNO
A WORKER AT Mammoth Inc., one of the state’s licensed cannabis cultivators, tends to the marijuana plants at its Warwick location. / PBN FILE PHOTO/MICHAEL SALERNO

Rhode Island may have legalized recreational marijuana, but now the debate will begin among local municipal officials about where that marijuana will be sold.

While the law approved by state legislators and signed by Gov. Daniel J. McKee last month allows up to 33 retail marijuana establishments throughout the state starting Dec. 1, most cities and towns will be given an opportunity to prohibit the sale of marijuana in their jurisdictions through a voter referendum this fall.

Marijuana sales will be allowed in communities where no referendum vote is taken.

The decision to put the question on the ballot on Nov. 8 will be made by city and town councils. Separately, municipalities can also enact ordinances to ban public smoking and vaping of cannabis without a voter referendum.

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In North Providence, Mayor Charles A. Lombardi will not be advocating for the retail sale or public use of marijuana.

“I think the negatives outweigh the positives,” Lombardi said. “Sometimes you see it, you smell it, and many people can’t control the use … I’m just not a proponent of using marijuana.”

Lombardi also has concerns about how to regulate and enforce policies prohibiting marijuana use, which exist in some workplaces, as no tests exist that can immediately determine if someone is actively intoxicated.

“I think those are the questions that are going to have to be answered, and I think that’s what people are concerned with at this time,” Lombardi said.

The law legalizes the sale and possession of up to 1 ounce of cannabis for adults, age 21 and older, with no more than 10 ounces for personal use kept at a person’s home. It also allows residents to grow a small amount at home.

Sales will be taxed at 20%, which includes the state’s existing 7% sales tax, a 10% cannabis excise tax and a 3% local tax that will go to the municipality where the sale takes place.

But cities and towns that elect to prohibit recreational marijuana sales will miss out on the revenue from such sales.

Communities that already have medical cannabis dispensaries – Providence, Warwick, South Kingstown and Portsmouth – can’t prohibit retail sales.

Lombardi isn’t concerned that missing out on cannabis revenue will have a significant financial impact on North Providence.

“I think we have other ways to derive revenue other than promoting the sale of marijuana,” he said.

Lombardi, who is president of the Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns, says the league is working to gauge where other municipalities stand. The group has issued a questionnaire to its members and expects to have responses soon.

In Warren, the Town Council hasn’t decided whether to put marijuana retail sales before local voters, Town Manager Kate Michaud said.

Consensus is currently a “mixed bag,” Michaud said. “Certainly, there are some people who think it’s an opportunity that could generate tax revenue. Then there are others who are concerned about the whole concept.”

The town is also determining how to potentially allow retail cannabis stores while staying compliant with federal Drug-Free Communities standards, which provide the town with grant funding and may have different regulations for employers.

“There’s a piece of the [legalization] law that says we can’t penalize folks for using marijuana if it’s outside of a 24-hour period from their shift,” she said. “The problem is that there’s no test in existence that can prove when someone used marijuana. So we’re working through the logistics.”

The town is working with the League of Cities and Towns to determine these details, Michaud said.

“We certainly don’t want to put federal funding in jeopardy,” she added. “That’s a significant factor for us as a small town.”

But if recreational marijuana has community support in Warren, Michaud is confident that the town can effectively regulate and host dispensaries.

“If it’s something that the elected officials and residents want to allow, certainly … I’m sure we can craft regulations that will make it work,” she said.

Cities and towns will also need to follow regulations set forth by the Cannabis Control Commission, a three-person group established under the same bill that legalized recreational marijuana. Under this legislation, Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio has been given 40 days to submit the names of three nominees to serve on this commission.

The R.I. Office of Cannabis Regulation, which oversees regulations prior to the creation of the commission, could not be reached for comment.

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