PROVIDENCE — Advocates of Rhode Island’s medical-marijuana program were not surprised when they learned that four U.S. Attorneys in California announced last week that they were cracking down on large commercial marijuana operations that make millions of dollars and supply the drug to hundreds of dispensaries across the state.
But, they said, it’s important to note that Rhode Island is nothing like California. The biggest difference is that the licensing of dispensaries in California is not regulated, while state law in Rhode Island permits the opening of just three dispensaries in the nation’s smallest state.
“It’s a completely different world,” said JoAnne Leppanen, executive director of the Rhode Island Patient Advocacy Coalition. “It’s apples and oranges. The face of the patients has gotten lost in California.”
The announcement in California came just days after Governor Chafee issued a statement saying that he would not grant licenses to three dispensaries that the state Health Department selected last spring to provide marijuana to approximately 4,000 patients in the Rhode Island medical-marijuana program.
The dispensaries are the Thomas C. Slater Compassion Center in Providence, Summit Medical Compassion Center in Warwick and Greenleaf Compassionate Care Center in Portsmouth. Chafee, bowing to a threat from Peter F. Neronha, the U.S. Attorney for Rhode Island, said he was worried the federal authorities might raid the dispensaries and arrest anyone affiliated with their operation.
The governor’s decision angered patients and advocates of the program who said Chafee was violating state law by refusing to grant the licenses, and robbing patients of an opportunity to legally buy marijuana from state-regulated facilities.
The move by the federal prosecutors in California seems to buttress Chafee’s argument.
“Large commercial operations cloak their money-making activities in the guise of helping sick people when, in fact, they are helping themselves,” said Benjamin B. Wagner, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of California. “Our interest is in enforcing federal criminal law, not prosecuting seriously sick people and those who are caring for them.”
Added Laura E. Duffy, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of California: “The California marijuana industry is not about providing medicine to the sick. It’s a pervasive for-profit industry that violates federal law. As the number-one marijuana-producing state in the country, California is exporting not just marijuana, but all the serious repercussions that come with it, including significant public-safety issues and perhaps irreparable harm to our youth.”
California has an estimated 5,000 marijuana dispensaries or stores in the state, including about 1,000 in the greater Los Angeles area. Supporting the industry is more than 200,000 patients who are licensed by the state to buy medical marijuana.
Leppanen said that California, which first permitted medical marijuana in 1996, lost its way years ago. She said that physicians on the Venice Beach boardwalk offer, for $50, passersby the opportunity to get the OK to buy marijuana. She said she wants to see the marijuana dispensaries in Rhode Island, also referred to as compassion centers, “reflect the Rhode Island population.”
Leppanen and Seth Bock, proprietor of Greenleaf Compassionate, said the Rhode Island dispensaries would be tightly regulated and serve only patients in the medical-marijuana program. Bock pointed out that the program’s growth has been steady, but fairly slow, climbing to 4,000 in five years.
“What has been proposed here is a much smaller scale,” he said, adding that California has been “pushing the boundaries of medical programs.”
Bock and Leppanen said that they would be willing to meet with Chafee and his staff with the hope of reaching an agreement on the future of the dispensaries. They said the answer might be in scaling back the grow operations and revenue projections of the three Rhode Island establishments.
Chris Reilly, a spokesman for the Slater Center, said that Slater officials also would be willing to reduce its size “as long as the patient needs can be met.”
When Neronha, the state’s federal prosecutor, first hinted that the federal authorities might raid the Rhode Island dispensaries, he cited the projected size of Slater, Summit and Greenleaf. Summit called for revenues of $24.8 million in year three and up to 8,000 patients, while Slater projected 1,500 patients and revenues of $2.9 million after two years.
Greenleaf projections are more modest.
Christine Hunsinger, Chafee’s spokeswoman, said that Claire Richards, the governor’s chief legal counsel, will meet with Leppanen about the dispensaries and discuss the possibility of reaching an agreement on smaller marijuana distribution that might be acceptable to federal authorities.
She said that the governor supports the medical-marijuana program, and he wants to do what’s right by the patients.
“There is a community in need of this,” she said.