Rhode Island Law Enforcers Seek Marijuana Law Change

By Erika Neidowski | April 28, 2014

Law enforcement officials are pushing to amend Rhode Island’s medical marijuana law to address public safety problems they call unintended consequences of the program, but patient advocates say the changes would jeopardize access to medicine.

The attorney general’s office and municipal police chiefs say some licensed cardholders are growing excess amounts of marijuana under a program with inadequate oversight and some caregivers and patients have become targets of home invasions.

“People are taking advantage of this program to a level that the General Assembly could never have realized,” said Special Assistant Attorney General Joee Lindbeck.
She claims the program has created a “new class of crime victim.” Lindbeck and other law enforcement authorities cite a string of break-ins and assaults targeting growers, though no formal statistics were available.

Authorities also say some growers are cultivating in unsafe conditions that don’t meet housing codes, resulting in fires.

Legislation introduced by state Rep. Lisa Tomasso, D-Coventry, at the request of Attorney General Peter Kilmartin would substantially reduce the number of allowable plants while increasing the amount of legal marijuana that could be possessed. Patients could have three plants, down from 12. The limit for caregivers would be six, down from 24.

JoAnne Leppanen, executive director of the Rhode Island Patient Advocacy Coalition, said the bill cuts the number of plants so much that caregivers wouldn’t have enough marijuana to meet their patients’ needs.

`”You would literally be taking medicine away from patients,” she said, adding that many patients say the cost of getting medical marijuana from licensed compassion centers has proved to be prohibitively expensive.

She said that most in the program follow the rules and that problems are “very few and far between.” She questioned whether all the crimes cited by police are in fact linked to medical marijuana.

Tomasso’s bill would also require growers to get a cultivation certificate from the Department of Health; institute national criminal background checks for those applying to be caregivers; set up a safety inspection system for growers; and allow police to more easily verify, through a 24-hour automated system, whether someone is authorized to cultivate.

“With medical marijuana grows, there is no monitoring,” said Richmond Police Chief Elwood Johnson Jr., the head of the Rhode Island police chiefs association, in recent testimony before a House panel hearing marijuana-related bills, including one to legalize it.

“There’s no regulation outside of the police acting on tips. And we can’t find whether there’s a grow there until we go there.”

According to the state Department of Health, there are 7,600 registered medical marijuana patients and just fewer than 3,500 caregivers. Five registrations have been revoked for violations since the program went into effect, according to spokesman James Palmer.

Tomasso said that the program has been highly successful in helping sick patients and that the proposed changes are not designed to get in the way of that. Rather, she said, they would address serious problems that have cropped up.

“We’re trying to find the balance,” she said.

She and Lindbeck have called the bill a work in progress and say they are continuing to have discussions with the patient and caregiver community.

The House Judiciary Committee did not vote on it. Companion legislation hasn’t been heard in the Senate.

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