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Rhode Island: Governor Signs Legislation Authorizing State-Licensed Medical Marijuana ‘Compassion Centers’

Governor Lincoln Chafee signed legislation into law this week authorizing the creation of state-licensed ‘compassion centers’ to engage in the production and distribution of cannabis for authorized patients. It is the second time since 2009 that state lawmakers have approved legislation allowing for the state regulation of medical marijuana facilities.

Under the new law, Senate Bill 2555, health regulators will license three not-for-profit entities, known as ‘compassion centers,’ to operate within the state. Compassion centers will not be allowed to cultivate more than 150 cannabis plants on the premises at any one time, only 99 of which may be mature. Centers will also be restricted to possessing no more than 1,500 ounces of usable product at any one time.

Lawmakers have suggested that the imposed statutory limits will lower the likelihood of federal law enforcement officials interfering with the implementation of the law. At least one other state, New Mexico, imposes similar caps on authorized dispensaries.

State lawmakers initially enacted legislation allowing for the authorization of ‘compassion centers’ in 2009. However, Gov. Chafee suspended the law in 2011, stating, “[L]arge-scale commercial operations such as Rhode Island’s compassion centers (would) be potential targets of ‘vigorous’ criminal and civil enforcement efforts by the federal government.” Earlier this year, Gov. Chafee agreed to revisit the issue and to work with lawmakers to amend the law so that a limited number of small-scale distribution centers could apply for state licenses.

In response to the legislature’s actions, US Attorney Peter Neronha has said he will continue to oversee the enforcement federal drug laws. However, he has not specifically said whether ‘compassion centers’ will be targeted.

Three states – Colorado, Maine, and New Mexico – presently issue licenses to allow for the state-sanctioned production and distribution of cannabis. So far, dispensary facilities in those states have operated largely without federal interference.

Similar licensing legislation approved in recent years in Arizona, New Jersey, Vermont, and Washington, DC has yet to be implemented by local lawmakers.

In February, Delaware Gov. Jack Markell announced that he was suspending the implementation of a similar licensing program in that state.

Rhode Island lawmakers legalized the limited use and cultivation of cannabis for therapeutic purposes in 2006. Over 3,000 Rhode Islanders are presently authorized under state law to use cannabis.

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