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RI Toes the Line of Legalizing Marijuana

From tax revenue to the role of caregivers, here are some of the ways legalization could affect RI

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Congratulations may be in order. Or, depending on one’s viewpoint, a disapproving wag of the finger. According to the latest National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), Rhode Island is officially the most stoned state in America. One in eight of us Rhodies above the age of 12 claim to get high at least once a month, and 30% of 18-to 25-year-olds indulge in marijuana on a monthly basis. And yet, marijuana is technically illegal in Rhode Island.

But perhaps not for long.

On March 5, Senator Joshua Miller and Representative Scott Slater introduced the Marijuana Regulation, Control and Taxation Act, which aims to treat marijuana (referred to as cannabis in scientific and medical circles) similarly to alcohol and cigarettes. If passed, the law would allow persons over the age of 21 to legally possess two cannabis plants and up to one ounce of marijuana. Those who are in jail or who’ve been convicted for marijuana-related crimes no longer punishable by law could apply to have said crimes expunged from their records.

But this act is about more than simply making an increasingly less demonized drug available for mass consumption. Any proposed bill dealing with marijuana will, by association, involve agriculture, judicial reform, health and safety, education and, most urgently, economics. In a state with an almost $200 million deficit, potential tax dollars garnered from legalized cannabis (projected tax revenue earnings estimated in the proposed legislation suggest anywhere from $21 million to $80 million annually) would be a pleasing prospect to any politician.


Medicine for the Masses

Bright emerald in color with a strong familiar scent, a small basil plant sits, its roots submerged in swirling water; an indicator of the sophisticated indoor aquaculture I’m about to see. The soothing sound of circulating fluid echoes in the upstairs room of a suburban Rhode Island home while my new caregiving acquaintance, "Dave"–his name has been changed for anonymity–discusses the finer points of medical marijuana laws in the Ocean state. “You really can’t call [medical marijuana] a business, “ he explains. “Technically speaking, we [growers] are all not for profit.”

Rhode Island legalized medical marijuana in 2006. This means that if you suffer from chronic pain caused from sickness or injury, you most likely qualify to become a medical marijuana patient. Currently, patients can procure marijuana at one of Rhode Island’s three compassionate care centers, or go directly to a “caregiver,” like Dave. Caregivers also travel to patients who are unable to leave their homes.

“My mom has Lyme disease,” says Dave, who grows legally and distributes his medicine directly to card-holding patients. “She was strung out on opiates for so long [for the nerve pain.] And even though marijuana doesn’t get rid of all the pain, it takes the edge off to the point where she’s functional and completely off all of the opiates, which were destroying her body.”

This switch from conventional prescription drugs to cannabis is consistent with the findings of a recent study published in The Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, discussing medical marijuana patients specifically in Rhode Island. Researchers from Brown University and the University of Arkansas found that 56% of card-holding respondents reported using cannabis as an alternative to pharmaceuticals, and the majority of those who did said that because it alleviated their pain, they would be “interested in alternative treatment options to opioid-based treatment regimens.”

“Now, my mom grows her own medicine. I taught her everything,” says Dave.

The growing he speaks of is not your typical soil-and-water operation. When we descend into his basement, the atmosphere at first seems colder than the late winter air outside. As he lifts up a heavy curtain, however, I experience a shift to balmier temperatures, reminiscent of Florida in February. Suddenly, a new smell reaches my nostrils, something far sweeter and much more notorious than the smell of a household cooking herb.


A Strain By Any Other Name Would Not Smell As Sweet

I’ve stepped into a silver tinged laboratory where little budding plants reach for artificial sunshine – plants that imitate the tee-shirt emblazoned marijuana imagery of my youth. “There is no soil used,” the grower explains. “It’s an aeroponic recirculating deep water system.”

This expensive operation (my guide explains how he’s invested over $80,000 into growing over a two year period) is expertly crafted and almost 100% sustainable. All the wiring was set up by a licensed electrician and almost all of the equipment is American-made. Within the confines of this high-tech DIY lab grow two different marijuana strains: Chemdawg, a hybrid strain that can be anywhere from 18-26% THC, and Skywalker Kush, an indica-dominant hybrid strain that is potentially 30% THC.

If, like me, you’re not a cannabis enthusiast intimately familiar with the intricacies of the plant, here’s a brief breakdown of what marijuana actually is.

Marijuana is naturally occurring. There are thousands of different strains that can be found natively growing throughout the planet. Cannabinoids are the active ingredients in the plant, the most well known being THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), which is mainly responsible for the psychoactive effects of cannabis. However, a plant can have varying levels of THC and other cannabinoids such as Cannabigerols (CBG), Cannabichromenes (CBC) and Cannabidiol (CBD) – all of which affect the brain and body differently. “Cannabidiol is an anti-inflammatory and is specifically great at treating movement disorders – Parkinsons, MS, epileptic seizures,” Dave explains.

The strain game has evolved dramatically over recent years and it’s unlikely that what someone smokes today is even remotely similar to what your parents once smoked in secret. Different strains have specific uses. Some are great for muscle pain, some help with headaches, some rock your whole day, while some ease chronic tension. Indicas will mainly put you to sleep, whereas sativas can get you high for hours and leave you feeling super energetic.

Some argue that modern marijuana is far stronger than its predecessors, and that if you are obtaining it illegally you could be inhaling or ingesting pesticides or other harmful chemicals. That’s why trusted independent growing operations – not just of cannabis but of anything one puts into his or her body – are the key to acquiring a high quality product free from chemical infestation.

“I just want better quality pot,” says the grower. “That’s the most important thing, honestly. You’re not going to be able to compete in Rhode Island unless you’re pumping out the best [product], and everybody’s got it down to a science in this state. Quite literally.”


Just Say No

We’ve all heard the arguments: Marijuana is a gateway drug. Pot harms your brain and damages your lungs. Cannabis cultivates a criminal culture and causes psychosis. If it were legalized, more children would be at risk of using. Many of us grew up attending D.A.R.E seminars and watching ads that portrayed pot users as unmotivated, uncaring individuals who like to get high and engage in other criminal activities, all to get more nefarious substances. These villainous characters almost always ended up in jail. Or dead.

But, unlike alcohol or cocaine or heroine, there has never been a single recorded death related to marijuana overdose. Ever. In fact, someone would have to consume 20,000 to 40,000 times the amount of THC in an average sized joint to even be close to death.

As far as prohibition, Rhode Island Senator Josh Miller, one of the main supporters of the aforementioned legalization bill, recently stated, “Marijuana prohibition has been a long-term failure. Forcing marijuana into the underground market ensures authorities have no control of the product. Regulating marijuana would allow the product to be sold safely and responsibly by legitimate businesses in appropriate locations.”

While prohibition is obviously not working (I think we can all name at least one person we know who illegally uses cannabis), there is scientific evidence that suggests the active ingredients in cannabis can trigger schizophrenia in those genetically predisposed to the disease. However, an even more recent study published in Molecular Psychiatry suggests the reverse, that “the same genes that increase psychosis risk may also increase risk of cannabis use.”

The potential effect of legalization on children is, of course, a main concern. The Denver Post reported a rise in Children’s Hospitals seeing kids who accidentally ingested their parents’ legal THC-infused treats. But, like with any potentially harmful object – a gun for instance – it is up to the parents to properly secure such an item... one would think.

As for the gateway drug argument, logic is lacking. It only makes sense that those who are heroin or cocaine addicts probably started off smoking marijuana. I would venture to say that most people’s initial drug experiences are not with hard drugs. But if you reverse the argument, you would be hard pressed to prove that most people who have smoked inevitably use more dangerous substances.


A Hazy Future

On March 10, a raging blaze engulfed a mill building on Sims Avenue in Providence. The fire possibly originated from what is being called a “drug lab” by local media outlets. This is obviously worrying: if marijuana were legalized, would inexperienced growers be more likely to start such fires? Not unless BHO also becomes part of the conversation.

“It was butane that caused the fire,” explains Dave. Butane Hash Oil (BHO) is a cannabis-based product that is created when butane, a highly flammable substance, is pushed through a closed container containing marijuana plants (often the trimmings). The resulting substance is highly concentrated and can contain THC levels astronomically higher than those found in a flowering plant. “Making BHO is illegal... I don’t do it, but I know a lot of people who do. Think of it this way: I believe the world record just got broken, someone hit 32% THC with a new strain (of plant). But BHO starts with 60% levels of THC. I’ve seen them go up to 97%. That’s insanity.”

Making BHO isn’t just illegal in Rhode Island. It’s also illegal in Colorado. Thus, a distinction needs to be made. BHO is a substance that is not only dangerous to consume, but can cause life-threatening situations during its creation process. The fire on Sims Ave – if it were indeed caused by butane related to BHO – does not belong in the same conversation as legalization.

“I’m not necessarily pro-legalization, recreationally,” says Dave. “I’m not sure that I would want to see weed as anything other than a medicine.”

Independent growers may be the first to suffer if marijuana is legalized in Rhode Island, perhaps even before legalization ever takes place. There is a bill currently circulating that looks to cut out individual caretakers in Rhode Island altogether: Bill S0791. If passed, it would turn the current marijuana medical system upside down, eliminating caregivers in favor of two for-profit companies that would supply exclusively to our state’s existing compassion centers. Thus, patients would have no choice but to buy from the centers, who in turn would only carry marijuana from the aforementioned companies. Complete privatization of pot. The people who introduced this bill are not politicians but private for-profit business interests who are reportedly paying lobbyists $10,000 a month to promote the legislature.


Looking Forward

If national trends are anything to go by, then legalization is inevitable. Alaska, Oregon, Colorado and Washington have all legalized cannabis for recreational use, and almost half of the United States supports legalization in some form. Already in Providence there is a cannabis friendly “lounge” called Elevated, a Peck Street spot that caters to card holding patients who wish to consume marijuana in a safe space outside of their own homes.
However, despite Rhode Island’s number one ranking on the national scale of marijuana smoking states, there are, of course, those who oppose legalization.

Colonel Stephen McCartney of the Warwick Police recently explained in an interview that legalization would be sending the wrong type of message to Rhode Island’s youth. He also countered the economic argument by stating, “if this is the only way we can improve our economy then we have a serious problem.”

Attorney General Peter Kilmartin is another who is not in favor of legalization, and, like McCartney, is concerned with how legalization would affect our state’s adolescents.

“Youth perception of marijuana as a medicine coupled with youth perception of the risk of marijuana is already diminishing due to decriminalization.” Kilmartin recently expressed via email. “This legislative measure would bring our state down a slippery slope and would be devastating to our youth who are the future leaders of this state.”

The Marijuana Regulation, Control and Taxation Act, if passed, would ensure that the Department of Business Regulation (DBR) would at least be involved in the creation of governing rules, testing, labeling of product and would prohibit the use of dangerous pesticides and other chemicals when growing in RI. As for taxation, 40% of the taxes earned from legal cultivation and selling would go to the Department of Health to fund voluntary alcohol, tobacco and drug abuse treatment and prevention programs and 10% would be spent on drug recognition expert training for law enforcement.

But what would happen to Dave?

“I would be consulting. And I’m already consulting a lot – going around and setting up peoples’ grows with them. That’s where the money is going to be for people like me with the experience and the knowledge. Legal marijuana, though...” he stumbles over the phrase. “...that doesn’t even register in my brain.”

Legalized marijuana. It is hard to imagine. And only those who’ve experienced the coffee shops of Amsterdam, or the newly sprouted operations in Colorado, or who already hold a medical card, really know what it feels like to consume marijuana uninhibited by fear of punishment. As we go to press, the Marijuana Regulation, Control and Taxation Act is headed to the House for an official vote. While legalization in Rhode Island seems possible in 2015, nothing is guaranteed.