Once again, Rhode Island is wading into muddy waters. In May the General Assembly approved a law mandating that the health department establish privately run medical cannabis dispensaries; the first is scheduled to open next year. Rhode Island would be only the third state to enact such a law, and it has a chance to improve on California's wild and unregulated system and New Mexico's tightly constrained delivery-only network. But the new program has some crucial flaws that the Assembly must admit and rectify.
In theory, the dispensaries should be an improvement over the state's current marijuana regime. Under a law passed four years ago, state residents with certain serious medical conditions can obtain legal authorization to grow cannabis for their personal use. The draconian federal marijuana prohibition prevents the Food and Drug Administration from conclusively verifying the real medical benefit of the substance, but many patients suffering from wracking diseases as well as allergies to painkillers have found it to be their only option for relief. Nevertheless, cultivation is not a simple or abuse-proof process. Many honest users with chronic pain have severe difficulties growing the plants. And some dishonest registrants turn their privilege into a business venture, selling their produce to recreational smokers. A cannabis dispensary — carefully established, overseen and guarded — would make the dealers easier to target and take a burden off of the suffering citizens who need the drug.
But police officials have raised concerns that the bill makes no provision for protecting the dispensary from robbery and preventing sales to casual users. Historically, anxiety about cannabis distribution has often been rooted in hysterical misconceptions about the substance's effects and selfish political and economic conniving. But in this case, police concerns about dispensary security and protocols focus on the crux of the issue: the well-being of patients who depend on daily access to the drug. Dispensaries that surreptitiously flout the rules by selling to non-patients or phony patients risk shortages for legitimate users. And lax surveillance of the facilities could encourage burglary — a very real threat in a state with nearly 13 percent unemployment — which would provide a bonanza to local criminals and cut off patients' much-needed supplies. The bill also fails to provide funding to the health department for the establishment process and includes no mandate for oversight by medical professionals, a crucial element of a properly run dispensary program.
Setting up dispensaries sloppily may be worse than not setting them up at all. It could encourage crime, endanger patients' supplies and discourage other states interested in similar ventures. The Assembly should admit its errors in the first bill and expeditiously design and pass legislation requiring close supervision by medical professionals and granting the health and police departments the funding they need to carefully establish and protect the dispensaries. This will not be easy. The state is saddled with a staggering deficit of nearly $62 million, and the Assembly has already had to override the veto of Governor Donald Carcieri '65 to pass the original medical cannabis statute as well as the dispensary law. Nevertheless, the Assembly must take responsibility for what it has set in motion and do the hard work necessary to make the dispensaries a boon to Rhode Island and an example to other states.
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