Rep. Joseph McNamara never saw the picketers lining Smith Street in front of the State House Tuesday protesting Gov. Gina Raimondo’s budget proposal to tag marijuana plants grown for medicinal …
Rep. Joseph McNamara never saw the picketers lining Smith Street in front of the State House Tuesday protesting Gov. Gina Raimondo’s budget proposal to tag marijuana plants grown for medicinal purposes. The tags would carry a $150 price tab per plant for patients and $350 per plant for caregivers.
But then, the protest and chants of “don’t tax the sick” wouldn’t have changed anything.
The Warwick/Cranston legislator and chair of the House Health Education and Welfare Committee thinks the plan is a bad idea. McNamara draws on two personal observations in arriving at his conclusion. He notes that when the medical marijuana bill was first approved it included a one-year sunset clause. After that first year, McNamara recalls a hearing where many testifying had come before the committee the prior year.
“They didn’t look as pallid…they looked healthier,” he said.
McNamara also did some personal research. He visited one of the state’s three compassion centers, spending about an hour to watch people who were buying marijuana.
“People were coming in pain, young adults with different problems, and making it more expensive would be a mistake,” he said.
McNamara hears the governor’s arguments that tagging the plants would provide for greater controls, but he thinks there are other ways such as “digitizing” the plants so they could be tracked. Also, he feels the legislature acted cautiously in establishing only three compassion centers in the state.
“I can’t see the taxing of it,” he said.
He especially objects to the extension of the tagging to those people who grow their own marijuana, which they can do with restrictions under the existing law. Homegrown marijuana provides a low-cost means for patients who might otherwise be hard-pressed to pay for their medication, he said.
More than 100 people carrying homemade signs paraded in front of the State House Tuesday afternoon. Several organizations representing patients and caregivers were present.
In a telephone interview Wednesday, JoAnne Leppanen, executive director of the Rhode Island Patient Advocacy Coalition, called the governor’s proposal “an enormous tax.”
“This population is suffering from serious, debilitating, chronic conditions,” she said. She said of the nearly 13,000 people licensed for medical marijuana, most are low income, and at least 4,000 are on Medicaid, SSI or SSDI. In addition she said, “Some have virtually no income and a huge portion are unemployed.”
She didn’t have numbers, but she said many are trying to stop using addictive opioids.
“We’re talking about a tax that makes it impossible,” she said. “What kind of policy is it to exploit sick people for money? It is sick in more ways than one.”
Patrick Rimoshtus, the Green Cross director who uses medical marijuana to treat permanent nerve damage, said the current system lacks guidance. He said the state Department of Health provides virtually no information to licensed users.
“They don’t tell you where can grow and can’t. They just kind of leave you on your own,” he said.
A non-profit, Rimoshtus said Green Cross seeks to fill that gap through consultations, access to caregivers, classes and seminars, and other services.
Rimoshtus said the cost per once of marijuana at compassion centers ranges from $250 to $400, but it can be homegrown for a fraction of that amount.
“It’s definitely cheaper by far,” he said.
He believes the intent of the legislation is to prevent marijuana grown by caregivers and patients from flowing into the black market and raising revenues.
His response is if the state is going to tax marijuana, then it should legalize its recreational use and tax that, not the medical market. Citing the tax revenues Colorado has generated by legalization, he says, “If they want to make money, that’s the way to go.”
Rimoshtus has talked with the governor’s office and questioned calculations used in arriving at the $150 tag price and what a single marijuana plant produces. He said the state estimate of 1.5 pounds per plant is exaggerated and that 6.8 ounces per plant is more realistic.
“The math is skewed,” he said.
He also questioned the proposal to categorize everything from seedlings to mature plants as “a plant” when setting maximums of five plants for a patient and 24 for a caregiver.
Marie Aberger, spokeswoman for Raimondo, said the governor’s office is in the process of “hearing the feedback” and listening the concerns being raised. While the measure is projected to raise $8.4 million of which $7.62 million would flow into the general fund, she said the focus is improved safety and accountability. She said the bill would put the “framework” in place for safe growing operations.
Norman Bierenbaum, outreach manager for the governor’s office, notes there have been a number of fires and two explosions linked to the growing and processing of medical marijuana.
Aberger said a second objective of the legislation is to improve patient access with such measures as an expedited application for those on hospice care, enabling those approved for medical marijuana to purchase marijuana from any of the three compassion centers, and allowing for authorized purchasers other than the caregiver or the patient. She also points out that under the bill the Department of Health would retain the authority to issue user licenses, but that the Department of Business Regulation would become the regulatory agency on the growing and sale of medical marijuana.
“Law enforcement has no way to regulate anyone growing [now],” she said. The result, Birenbaum said, is that marijuana “is flooding the black market…this way we know who has what.”
Larry Berman, spokesman for House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, said yesterday the speaker hasn’t taken a position on the proposal. As the measure is included in the governor’s budget, the plan is a budget article and will be considered by the House Finance Committee. Hearings haven’t been scheduled yet.
If the plan is deleted from the budget, Berman observed, “We’ll have to find $8 million somewhere else.”