Fourteen months ago, Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee decided to withhold issuing certificates of operation to three prospective compassion centers (dispensaries) chosen by the governor’s own health department. This decision, made unilaterally by the governor, was Chafee’s reaction to a letter from Rhode Island United States Attorney Peter Neronha. The letter – one of several sent by United States attorneys across the country – reiterated the federal prohibition on marijuana, including for medical use. Additionally, it said Neronha’s office could prosecute people who violate the Controlled Substances Act. This stalled years of work done by the Rhode Island Legislature to give patients safe, regulated access to medical marijuana.
Needless to say, that day about 14 months ago wasn’t a good one around the MPP offices. MPP began lobbying to protect Rhode Island’s medical marijuana patients in 2004 and worked to allow compassion centers in the state since 2008. The legislature approved compassion center legislation in 2009, over then-governor Donald Carcieri’s veto. We watched with some frustration as the department needed two different application processes to determine who would operate the three compassion centers, but ultimately cheered the department when they finally approved the centers. We were on the verge of seeing compassion centers in Rhode Island, when Gov. Chafee received his letter. We were not pleased with Chafee or the federal government.
But then a funny thing happened up in Rhode Island: Chafee started feeling the heat of his decision. Patients would show up at his public events and hound him for restricting their access to a medicine that their physicians had recommended. Who is Gov. Chafee to refuse to implement duly enacted law anyway? Rhode Islanders demanded he reverse course. It was inspiring.
Over the course of the next months, MPP, along with our legislative champions, Sen. Rhoda Perry and Rep. Scott Slater, and patient advocates from the Rhode Island Patient Advocacy Coalition, engaged Gov. Chafee and his staff. An open dialogue was created and ideas were offered from both sides. The governor recognized the legitimate need for regulated safe access to medical marijuana but feared the program as written — with the possibility of thousands of plants per center and millions of dollars of revenue — would draw the ire of U.S. Attorney Neronha’s office.
Last night, Gov. Chafee signed into law legislation that resulted from those good faith negotiations. To limit the size of the centers, the law has been amended to restrict the centers to cultivating a maximum of 150 marijuana plants, no more than 99 of which may be mature. Additionally, the centers may possess no more than 1,500 ounces of usable medical marijuana at a time. To ensure the viability of the centers, the law will allow medical marijuana patients and caregivers to sell their excess medicine to compassion centers, but caregivers must first attest that their patients have had their medical needs met.
We certainly disagreed with Gov. Chafee’s decision to halt initial implementation of the compassion centers, and we recognize that the compromise legislation is not perfect. However, the ball has been moved forward. The long arm of the federal government started shaking its sword and frightened a governor into inaction. With the help of logic, reason, sincere compassion, and dogged stick-to-it-ness by legislative leaders, Rhode Island has been able to move past the fear and pass legislation that will bring safe access to medical marijuana patients.
We’ve got one piece of advice for U.S. Attorney Neronha: voters will remember if you continue to bully those who provide medicine to the seriously ill instead of focusing on prosecuting real crimes. Be careful how you proceed next.