Chafee: RI won’t license medical marijuana centers


Gov. Lincoln Chafee said Thursday the state won’t move ahead with plans to license medical marijuana dispensaries because the state law allowing for the three centers is illegal under federal law.

Chafee said the state shouldn’t implement the “compassion center” law because it will become a target of federal law enforcement. He said seizures of marijuana and prosecutions would harm patients and caregivers who use or administer marijuana for therapeutic purposes.

“I believe that patients with debilitating medical conditions such as cancer, glaucoma and AIDS should have safe, reliable and well-regulated access to marijuana for therapeutic purposes,” Chafee said in a statement explaining his decision. “Unfortunately, Rhode Island’s compassion center law is illegal under paramount federal law.”

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.

The state picked three facilities to dispense marijuana under the law. Last spring, Chafee suspended plans to open the facilities after federal prosecutors warned the dispensaries could face prosecution for violating federal drug laws.

Ellen Lenox Smith of North Scituate, R.I., has been waiting for years for the dispensaries to open. The 61-year-old former teacher suffers from chronic inflammation in her lungs and a disorder that causes her tendons and ligaments to loosen. She spent years in a wheelchair and has had surgery 19 times. The pain is almost constant, she said.

“This is garbage,” she said of Chafee’s decision. “The only thing that helps me is medicinal marijuana. It literally keeps me alive. I don’t like being played with, and I feel like that’s what he’s doing.”

Chafee said he wants to work with the General Assembly to fix flaws in the law, perhaps as soon as next month, when lawmakers plan to convene a special session dedicated to overhauling the state’s public pension system.

“I am hopeful that the General Assembly will introduce new legislation in the upcoming session that will address the flaws in, and indeed make improvement to, the existing medical marijuana card and caregiver system while not triggering federal enforcement actions,” Chafee said in his statement.

State Rep. Scott Slater, D-Providence, is a leading supporter of the law. He noted that the dispensary law passed overwhelmingly and said he’s skeptical that it can be improved.

“I don’t know what program we could put in that the federal government would be OK with,” he said. “I’d like to hear what the governor’s ideas are, but I don’t think he’s putting anything forward. He just put it back in our lap.”

The leader of a group that fought to open the marijuana dispensaries said Chafee is turning his back on the state’s most vulnerable citizens. The Rhode Island Patient Advocacy Coalition held a Statehouse protest Tuesday to urge Chafee to allow three dispensaries to open.

“It shows a total disregard,” said JoAnne Leppanen, RIPAC’s executive director. “To throw it back to the Legislature at this point means it’s going to take years. In the meantime, what about the patients with severe and chronic medical conditions?”

The three dispensaries picked to distribute medical marijuana were the Thomas C. Slater Compassion Center in Providence, Summit Medical Compassion Center in Warwick and Greenleaf Compassionate Care Center in Portsmouth. Dispensary operators had hoped to open this year.

Calls to dispensary operators weren’t immediately returned Thursday night. 

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