Rhode Island: Council hears about recreational marijuana

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As momentum to legalize recreational marijuana in Rhode Island builds, the town council held a special town meeting Tuesday to look at what can be expected should marijuana for recreational use become legal in the state. 

Joee Lindbeck, assistant attorney general, visited the town hall to share her insight into zoning for marijuana for both medical and recreational purposes. 

“I will say this,” Lindbeck began, “your town has been a leader in this state about zoning ordinances of medical marijuana.”

Last year, the East Greenwich Town Council passed an ordinance which placed regulations on the use of medical marijuana. That ordinance requires that anyone wishing to open a compassion center in the town first obtain a special use permit—there are multiple tiers of marijuana facilities in Rhode Island, with compassion centers, or medical marijuana retail facilities, serving as the largest. 

Because East Greenwich has already addressed the use of medical marijuana in the town, Lindbeck’s presentation Tuesday focused primarily on the possibility of recreational marijuana becoming legal in the state. 

Marijuana was decriminalized in Rhode Island in 2012, meaning possession of marijuana in the amount of an ounce or less is grounds for a $150 fine. 

“We’ve already decriminalized it,” Lindbeck said. “For social justice—we don’t want to see anybody go to the ACI for marijuana.”

Under the Marijuana Regulation, Control and Taxation Act, which has been proposed in Rhode Island, penalties for the possession of marijuana in limited amounts by adults 21 and older would be removed. 

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“Our question is, will this benefit the citizens of Rhode Island? Will this benefit the citizens of East Greenwich? We don’t think so,” she said, adding that the only information the state has on the possible benefits of legalization comes from states like Colorado, where recreational marijuana use was legalized in 2012. 

“In Colorado, their E.R. visits went up by 4,000 for marijuana related in the first year of legalization,” Lindbeck said. “In Washington [which also legalized recreational marijuana use in 2012] their ‘marijuana exposure calls’ have increased 67 percent since legalization, and for people under 20, it increased 80 percent.”

That dramatic increase in marijuana exposure medical calls is due largely to edibles, she added. 

Town council vice president Sean Todd said during a recent discussion with his brother, who lives in Colorado, his brother said children getting into marijuana edibles has been one of the biggest unintended consequences of legalizing marijuana for recreational use in the state.

The legislation being proposed in Rhode Island would also allow for the growing of one plant per person and three per household.

“We are going to see an increase in home grow,” she said. “Look at our neighbors in Massachusetts—they allow six plants per person and they pushed out their stores 18 months. They just created their black market.”

Lindbeck added that crime rates have risen in Colorado, and that the gray market—residents who are growing legally in their state, but selling illegally to visitors from out-of-state—has also become a significant problem. 

“We’re here today to ask you the following,” Lindbeck said. “If commercialization is inevitable, like you’re all hearing it is, what can East Greenwich do about it?”

“We think you should be able to say ‘no,’” she continued, “which you’ve already done. You’ve already said no to marijuana stores.”

In Colorado, Lindbeck said, 75 percent of the municipalities either opted out of or placed a moratorium on legalization.

“In other words,” she added, “68 percent of Colorado municipalities said no—that’s something you don’t hear a lot.”

If the Marijuana Regulation, Control and Taxation Act should pass in Rhode Island, Lindbeck said, each town should be able to zone facilities out. 

Town council president Sue Cienki said following Lindbeck’s presentation that she recently attended a conference with several Colorado legislators, who doled out advice on recreational marijuana legalization. 

“They all suggested that before we dive into commercialization of recreational marijuana that we talk to them,” she said, “because there’s more problems than everyone is letting you know.”

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