Rhode Island lawmakers and Gov. Lincoln Chafee announced a compromise Thursday that they say will allow three already licensed medical marijuana dispensaries to open without the risk of a federal prosecution.
The deal, which must be approved by the state’s General Assembly, would limit the amount of marijuana dispensaries could possess to prevent the facilities from running afoul of federal drug laws. Chafee blocked three state-approved dispensaries from opening last year after federal prosecutors warned that they could face criminal charges.
“We tried to find something the federal government could accept,” said state Rep. Scott Slater, a Providence Democrat who worked closely on the legislation. “I don’t they (federal prosecutors) are ever going to bless anything, but we’re trying to respond to their concerns while giving the patients what they need.”
The compromise is good news for the 4,416 people now enrolled in the state’s medical marijuana program, according to JoAnne Leppanen, executive director of the Rhode Island Patient Advocacy Coalition, a group which called on Chafee to allow the dispensaries to open.
Rhode Island already allows qualified patients to possess small amounts of marijuana to treat conditions including chronic pain, severe nausea, seizures and multiple sclerosis. Lawmakers approved the compassion center law after patients said there were few safe and reliable sources for medical marijuana.
“This is a huge relief,” Leppanen said. “The dispensaries have had their licenses for almost a year now. We can’t get them open soon enough.”
Sen. Rhoda Perry, a Providence Democrat, said she believes the dispensaries could open three to six months after the law is enacted. Perry pushed for the compromise and helped write the original dispensary law.
Perry said there’s no way to be sure federal authorities will accept the compromise.
“We’re acting in good faith,” she said. “We had to try to find a solution.”
A spokesman for U.S. Attorney Peter F. Neronha of Rhode Island said Thursday that Neronha’s office has yet to review the proposed compromise and would have no comment.
It would be up to the state’s Department of Health to set the precise limits on how much marijuana a dispensary could possess. Department spokesman Peter Hanney said that if the bill passes, Health Director Michael Fine would call a series of public hearings before issuing regulations. He said there’s no estimate as to how long the process might take.
Last spring, federal prosecutors wrote to officials in several states contemplating dispensaries that large-scale medical marijuana operations could face criminal prosecution for drug crimes. The prosecutors said they wouldn’t target medical marijuana users who grow or possess small amounts for personal use.
In response, Chafee blocked the dispensaries from opening and said he would work on finding a compromise.
“I look forward to passage of a bill that will avoid federal intervention and bring needed medicinal relief to those who stand to benefit,” Chafee, an independent, said in a statement Thursday.
The compromise already has the support of House Speaker Gordon Fox and Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed, according to their spokespeople. The legislation has been introduced in both chambers. Legislative hearings on the proposal have not been scheduled.
The three dispensaries to be licensed are Thomas C. Slater Compassion Center in Providence, Summit Medical Compassion Center in Warwick and Greenleaf Compassionate Care Center in Portsmouth.