The first legal adult use cannabis sales went live in Rhode Island on Thursday, as regulators in neighboring New York and Connecticut race to follow suit in the coming weeks.
Rhode Island’s path to legalization has been a somewhat winding one. Since 2021, both Gov. Dan McKee and lawmakers put forth adult use proposals. After months of debate about how cannabis should be regulated, lawmakers came together behind a bill that McKee signed this May.
The state’s program, tiny in comparison to nearby states like Massachusetts and New Jersey, will start with five licensed medical cannabis shops, known as compassion centers, that have been approved by regulators for “hybrid” status that allows them to sell cannabis to both medical cannabis patients and adult use consumers.
These shops are:
• Aura of Rhode Island, located in Central Falls
• Thomas C. Slater Center, located in Providence
• Mother Earth Wellness, located in Pawtucket
• Greenleaf Compassionate Care Center, located in Portsmouth
• RISE Warwick, located in Warwick
McKee called the licensing of the hybrid shops a “milestone.” Eventually, 33 adult use shops will be licensed, six of which will be allocated to equity applicants.
The passage of the bill was the “result of a carefully executed process to ensure that our state’s entry into this emerging market was done in a safe, controlled and equitable manner,” he continued, adding, “It is also a win for our statewide economy and our strong, locally based cannabis supply chain.”
Rhode Islanders age 21 and older will be allowed to possess and buy cannabis and cannabis products, and also to grow six plants at home, three of which can be mature. There’s also a provision in the law that allows for automatic expungement by July 2024 of any cannabis-related conviction for activity that would now be legal.
Sen. Joshua Miller and Rep. Scott A. Slater spearheaded the adult use bill that became law. Slater’s late father, Thomas C. Slater, authored the state’s medical cannabis law more than a decade ago.
“The reality is that prohibition does not stop cannabis use. Since Rhode Islanders can already access cannabis just across the state border or on the illicit market, we experience all the challenges without any of the safeguards or resources that our neighboring states have,” Miller said in a statement when lawmakers passed the legislation.
Rhode Island’s legalization framework could have looked much different. Former Gov. Gina Raimondo, who left the office to join Pres. Joe Biden’s administration, pitched cannabis legalization through the budget process, like McKee. But her plan back in 2019 was much more restrictive and would have required state government-run retailers, which lawmakers balked at. (State-run models have yet to take hold in the United States, though some Canadian provinces have gone that route).
Jared Moffat, state campaigns manager for the Marijuana Policy Project, told Cannabis Wire at the time that Raimondo’s tone was “‘I’m doing this reluctantly,’ which is unfortunate and not the best way to sell a policy.”
Still, Raimondo’s move to put legalization into the budget helped to prompt a foot-dragging legislature to take cannabis policies more seriously.
“Usually they just have a hearing and never vote on it,” Moffat said.
At the same time, the pressure of neighboring states’ legalization efforts was already looming large. New Jersey voters approved legalization at the ballot box in 2020, while lawmakers in New York and Connecticut passed bills in 2021.
“There’s a question of ‘Are citizens going to be driving over the state line buying this product and we won’t have the revenue to deal with it?’” Norman Birenbaum, then-policy analyst for Rhode Island’s Department of Business Regulation, told senators during a discussion about Raimondo’s plan.
Birenbaum is now with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research (CDER), where he serves as the senior public health advisor on cannabis research and regulation.
In Connecticut, the Department of Consumer Protection announced in late November that three medical cannabis producers have been approved to expand into adult use, and seven existing medical cannabis shops were approved to sell adult use.
The three grows are:
• Advanced Grow Labs LLC
• Connecticut Pharmaceutical Solutions LLC
• Curaleaf LLC
The shops are:
• Affinity (New Haven)
• Bluepoint Wellness of Connecticut (Branford)
• C3 Torrington (Still River Wellness) (Torrington)
• FFD Newington (Newington)
• FFD Stamford (Stamford)
• FFD Willimantic (Willimantic)
• Willow Brook Wellness (Meriden)
However, there is one big remaining step.
“While adult-use sales are still anticipated to begin around the end of the year or early next year, the law requires at least 250,000 square feet of growing and manufacturing space in the aggregate be approved for adult-use production before retail sales can begin at converted hybrid retailers,” regulators announced.
This means that all four of the existing medical cannabis producers need to “come online,” and the DCP is working on the fourth application now.
And in New York, as Cannabis Wire recently reported, regulators awarded the first 36 conditional adult use retail licenses, and expect the first sales to take place by the end of 2022.