Medical Marijuana Program: At A Crossroads?

By Kristin Gourlay Rhode Island Public Radio 

Several caregivers and patients participating in the state's medical marijuana program have reached out to me recently, offering to educate me about their role and the benefits of the program.

Proposed legislation eliminates caregivers

The reason I'm hearing so much from participants is because of a bill that's recently been introduced in the General Assembly that would eliminate caregivers from the state's medical marijuana program (it's an amendment to the state's Medical Marijuana Act). Instead, the bill proposes licensing two cultivation and distribution centers.

Cornering the market?

Caregivers and patients say they're worried that's a thinly veiled attempt to corner the market on marijuana sales. Peter Petrarca, the lobbyist behind the bill, tells me his client, the newly incorporated Rhode Island Growers and Distributors, simply wants to see stronger regulation of the marijuana grown and sold here. I reached out to Douglas DeSimone, who's listed in public records as the owner of that LLC, but have not heard back from him.

The rhetoric is heating up on both sides.

Enforcing the law
Petrarca told me caregivers weren't regulated, but the cultivation centers would be. Actually, state regulations cover licensing of caregivers and limiting the number of plants they can grow, as well as the number of patients. Exceed those limits, and you're violating state law.

State police have told me they're seeing a rising number of caregivers exceeding that law. They're concerned about the difficulty of enforcing the state's medical marijuana program, knowing which caregivers are following the law and which are growing and potentially selling more than they should.

Petrarca is correct if he means that caregivers aren't inspected or monitored. The state's health department, which runs the medical marijuana program, is not required to inspect them or to monitor or test the safety of medical marijuana products grown and sold in Rhode Island.

But caregivers and patients have been insisting that most participants in the program are simply growing what they need and no more. Given the small number of state police searches of caregiver properties that have resulted in criminal charges, out of the total number of caregivers (more than 3300), that may be true. But it may also be that state police don't have the resources to check up on every single caregiver.

What's clear is that thousands of Rhode Islanders participate in the state's medical marijuana program, many of whom are looking for relief from debilitating conditions.

Is the state's current program, initiated in 2006, working to provide that relief? Patients and caregivers tell me it is.

Safety monitoring?
But should the state be required to monitor the safety of medical marijuana products? The federal government, which normally monitors food and drug safety, won't do it because marijuana is still illegal at the federal level. Some medical marijuana advocates think so. Take this example, from Becky DeKeuster, executive clinical director of Wellness Connection of Maine, a medical marijuana dispensary in Maine. This is from a 2014 story by Seth Koenig in the Bangor Daily News:

"DeKeuster said on Tuesday the state could make progress in terms of product safety by clarifying what it considers acceptable treatments for the plants and by establishing a product-testing program that takes samples from independent caregivers in addition to the state’s dispensaries.

'We really do need a lab licensing program as a piece of our regulatory framework,' she said. 'That would benefit patients in the end. They would be assured of contaminant-free medicine. That’s something we should definitely work on, getting some independent third-party lab testing up and running.'"

But a medical marijuana advocacy group called Americans for Safe Access says that kind of monitoring isn't necessary. They say patients need to be able to grow their own marijuana, or have access to someone who grows it on their behalf, to keep it affordable and easy to obtain. Big cultivation operations, like the ones proposed in pending legislation in Rhode Island, add overhead costs and sideline individual patients' needs, Americans For Safe Access reports.

Legalization - a game changer?
And what would happen if state lawmakers succeed in passing legislation, on the table once again, to legalize marijuana - medical and otherwise? Growers big and small would be poised to make money. The state would collect some much needed tax revenue.

But the state-federal conflict over marijuana laws would remain. State police might find themselves faced with a greater burden enforcing laws governing even legalized marijuana.

Many advocates would say fewer people would end up unnecessarily in jail over small marijuana-related offenses.

Would medical marijuana patients find more options, or fewer, for the relief they seek? That's unclear to me. I'll continue tracking the proposed legislation, and welcome your comments.