By Steph Machado

Rhode Island’s state-licensed cannabis cultivators are outraged about a newly filed medical marijuana bill they fear will shutter their businesses.

House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio filed the two identical bills in their respective chambers last week, aiming to block Gov. Gina Raimondo from enacting certain regulations for the soon-to-be expanded medical marijuana program.

Raimondo’s proposed regulations would have blocked the six new compassion centers, approved by lawmakers last year, from growing their own cannabis. But the Mattiello-Ruggerio bill bars her administration from doing that, sending many of the 51 state-licensed cultivators into a panic.

“I can’t see how we could stay in business if the new centers will be able to grow,” said Domenic Passarella, a co-owner of Rhode Island’s Finest Gardens in Warwick. “It basically legislates us out of the market.”

Like many cultivators, Passarella said he and his four co-owners put their life savings — more than $1 million — into building the facility in Warwick. They were licensed by the state in 2017, and have been growing cannabis and selling their product to the three existing marijuana dispensaries, known as compassion centers.

The company manufactures some of its own products in addition to selling raw flower, but is only legally allowed to sell it to the medical compassion centers.

“It’s as good of a market as we can hope, right now,” Passarella said.

The three existing compassion centers — in Providence, Warwick and Portsmouth — grow their own cannabis on top of buying from cultivators, and they sell it to more than 18,000 medical marijuana patients. But the cultivators fear if the six new centers can also grow their own cannabis, there will be enough in-house product between the nine compassion centers to meet the demand — forcing the cultivators to close shop.

“Our lighting bills are close to $13,000 a month,” Passarella said. “Labor, lease, water, sewer, testing …. It doesn’t make sense to put all that money into a company that you have no place to sell the product.”

This isn’t the first time this issue has come up. When medical marijuana expansion was debated last year — as part of the 2019-20 budget bill — some House lawmakers expressed concern that the cultivators would be forced to shut down or sell on the black market if the budget article was approved.

The bill did pass, and six months later Raimondo’s Department of Business Regulation (DBR) released draft regulations for the six new centers. The regulations proposed making the centers retail-only, barring them from growing and forcing them to buy from cultivators. It also set up a lottery system for selecting the six centers, based on geographic zones throughout the state.

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