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Advocates urge R.I. to keep focused on social equity one year after marijuana legalization

Now that Governor McKee has nominated Cannabis Control Commission members, the Cannabis Justice Coalition is emphasizing provisions to repair the harm done by the “War on Drugs”

Slide from PowerPoint presentation describing legislation to legalize and regulate recreational adult-use marijuana in Rhode Island.Handout

PROVIDENCE — Advocates stood outside the State House on Thursday, reminding officials that repairing the harm done by the “War on Drugs” was a key goal of legislation, signed exactly one year ago, to legalize recreational marijuana in Rhode Island.

The Rhode Island Cannabis Justice Coalition organized the news conference following Governor Daniel J. McKee’s long-awaited nomination of a three-member Cannabis Control Commission, which will play a pivotal role in regulating the state’s new marijuana industry.

Representative Cherie Cruz, a Pawtucket Democrat hampered for years by a felony drug conviction, said that “as someone who has been directly impacted by the harmful impacts of the War on Drugs,” she knows all too well “the generational and cyclical harms of this failed drug war.”


“I stand here now as an advocate and as a new state legislator,” Cruz said, “to advocate that those closest to the impacts of these harms are centered and meaningfully involved in any legalization implementation efforts — from the ground all the way up.”

She called for McKee to ensure marijuana legalization adheres to the principles reflected in the Rhode Island Cannabis Act, including “social and racial equity, labor solidarity, minority-owned business, cooperative ownership, and consulting the directly impacted.”

The marijuana legislation had called for the governor to send Cannabis Control Commission nominees to the Senate for confirmation within 40 days of the May 25, 2022, effective date. But McKee didn’t submit nominees until May 17 of this year, and legislators said that delay has been hampering Rhode Island’s emerging marijuana market.

For one thing, legislators said, highway billboards are now emblazoned with ads for Massachusetts marijuana shops, while Rhode Island businesses are prevented from posting those kinds of ads because of restrictions the Cannabis Control Commission could remove. And, legislators said, Rhode Island cannot deliver on its “social equity” promises of providing marijuana licenses and jobs to communities hurt by the “War on Drugs” because there’s no commission to issue new retail licenses.


A McKee spokeswoman has said the administration was working through the process, noting that the statute requires that all candidates undergo a complete background check and investigation into potential conflicts prior to appointment.

Rhode Island now has seven compassion centers that are licensed to provide medical and recreational marijuana for adults, and two additional licenses are pending for facilities in Woonsocket and Foster.

Once active, the Cannabis Control Commission is empowered to grant 24 more retail licenses. No more than four marijuana shops will be allowed in each of six geographic zones of the state. And of the four shops in each zone, one will be reserved for a workers’ cooperative applicant, and one will be reserved for a “social equity” applicant.

The law defines a “social equity” applicant as one “that has been disproportionately impacted by criminal enforcement of marijuana laws, including individuals convicted of nonviolent marijuana offenses, immediate family members of individuals convicted of nonviolent marijuana offenses, and individuals who have resided in disproportionately impacted areas for at least five of the last 10 years.”

The Cannabis Justice Coalition includes Reclaim RI, the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 328, the Break the Cycle Cooperative Hub, and PVD Flowers, a cooperative dispensary start-up.

In a statement, Raquel Baker, a PVD Flowers founder and member of the Formerly Incarcerated Union, said, “As a female that has been incarcerated and has a traumatic brain injury, I know what it’s like to be pushed around and feel helpless at times. To me, cannabis justice means healing some of the harm that’s been done and giving people a second chance.”


David-Allen “Bear” Sumner, of the Break the Cycle Cooperative Hub, said: “Coming from an impact of community myself, I know the effects of being excluded. Inclusion is so important — and not just the promise.”

In an interview, Samuel Marvin, a union representative with United Food and Commercial Workers Local 328, said Rhode Island passed “what we hoped is most equitable and socially just cannabis legislation in the country.”

But Rhode Island has now reached a “critical moment,” he said, so the coalition is reminding state officials of “the importance of passing rules and regulations that will be focused around equity for communities disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs.”

Marvin said he hopes the Senate, in providing advice and consent to the Cannabis Control Commission nominees, will ask questions about what sort of rules commission members will support “to maintain strong focus on racial and social equity.” And he noted that while the law also calls for creation of an 11-member Cannabis Advisory Board, that has not happened yet.

“We’d like to see the new licenses be issued for worker coops and social equity applicants and give them the first opportunities,” Marvin said. “We hope there is quick turnaround in issuing the licenses. It has been over a year.”


Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at Follow him @FitzProv.