Cannabis Control Commission Chairperson Kimberly Ahern is shown during the commission’s meeting on Nov. 3, 2023. (Christopher Shea/Rhode Island Current)
What constitutes a community that is disproportionately impacted by the War on Drugs?
That’s the question Rhode Island’s Cannabis Control Commission hopes to better define as it works on initial regulations for recreational dispensaries. To do so, Chairperson Kimberly Ahern said at the commission’s Nov. 3 meeting she would request data from state and federal agencies on which Rhode Islanders would qualify for one of the 12 special licenses available under the law.
Rhode Island’s cannabis law sets a cap of 24 retail licenses. Of those, six are reserved for social equity applicants and another six are reserved for worker-owned cooperatives.
The statute on social equity includes many definitions on what constitutes a disproportionately impacted area. Under the Rhode Island cannabis act, it can be determined by federal poverty level, unemployment rate, how many kids in a free lunch program, and historic arrest rates.
“The whole idea is to frame where these individuals might be,” Ahern said in an interview. “But before we can get there, we need all the data in front of us.”
Ahern said she did not set a deadline on when the commission needs that data. “But we’ll check in with agencies to see what’s realistic,” she said.
The Cannabis Control Commission’s data request is one that some marijuana advocates and prospective dispensary owners are happy to see. Many said the definitions are filled with loopholes that can be exploited by those who don’t need the help.
The whole idea is to frame where these individuals might be. But before we can get there, we need all the data in front of us.
– Rhode Island Cannabis Control Commission Chairperson Kimberly Ahern
Rep. David Morales, a Providence Democrat, noted that dispensary applicants can be considered for a social equity license so long as more than half their workforce come from a “disproportionately impacted area.”
“This essentially says that if you’re a wealthy person who wants to engage in the cannabis industry — you will now get additional support from the state,” he said.
Such language is not included in Massachusetts’ cannabis law, said Chris Fevry, who serves on that state’s Cannabis Social Equity Advisory Board.
“That needs to be stripped out entirely because it’s going to be abused,” he said of the ownership wording in the Rhode Island law.
Fevry, who grew up in Providence, said Massachusetts does not have a set social equity license type for dispensaries. Instead, the Bay State issues licenses for delivery or social consumption (think a cannabis cafe), which Fevry said are given exclusively to social equity applicants. There is also no cap on the number of social equity retailers, he added.
Massachusetts’ social equity program, Fevry explained, is strictly state support through education and skill-based training.
State support, Morales said, should be given to owners who come from these communities.
“Otherwise they’re going to be relegated to budtenders or lower-paying jobs in the dispensary, all for the purpose of allowing their boss to take advantage of social equity status,” Morales said.
If the Cannabis Control Commission is to have just one set definition, Morales wants the three-member panel to focus on Rhode Islanders who were incarcerated on cannabis charges.
“There needs to be people with past history in this,” agreed Raquel Baker, who works for the PVD Flowers Cooperative, a cannabis dispensary that registered with the Secretary of State’s office in February.
Andre Dev, who also helped found PVD Flowers, said picking someone who was directly impacted by the War on Drugs is the best way to try and remedy mistakes of the past. It can also build up those very communities that were once overpoliced, he said.
“It builds wealth and an incentive to care about customers in that community,” Dev said.
Fund would assist social equity applicants
Should the commission prioritize those who were formerly incarcerated, Dev said the state needs to make sure those potential dispensary owners are given the tools and capital to succeed.
Under the Rhode Island Cannabis Act, social equity applicants can receive some assistance from a program “for business assistance and license application benefits” from a designated fund. As of Nov. 3, Ahern said the fund had $1,013,500.
“Until the advisory board and the commission issue any regulations on this — there’d be nothing coming out of that fund,” she said.
Massachusetts has established a similar fund but as of November, no money was in it.
“We’re a little bit behind in that area,” Fevry said.
Dev said he was surprised to hear about Rhode Island’s total social equity funds, but doubted if that is enough to help all six social equity applicants mandated by the law. The Rhode Island cannabis law notes that except for $125,000 initial license fee, all remaining fees collected by the state are to be placed in a “medical marijuana licensing account.” If all 24 dispensaries were approved, that would add $3 million more to the fund.
“That could open two and half dispensaries,” Dev said. “If you’re lucky.”
Dev and Baker suggested the state divert more revenues from fees and fines to the fund.
Use of the money, Dev suggested, should be similar to the Massachusetts program and provide “professional infrastructure” for formerly incarcerated Rhode Islanders, like building resumes and teaching them about financing.
“I think we can do a lot of creative things with that fund,” he said. “We have this great opportunity.”
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