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More positive alterations are in the works for Rhode Island's developing cannabis laws. State Reps. Joseph Almeida and John M. Carnevale are seeking to streamline the distribution of medical marijuana and discourage abuse of the substance. The state already allows patients with chronic pain or their registered caregivers to grow the plant for its pain-dulling properties, which many sufferers prefer over traditional painkillers. Rhode Island also plans to sanction three privately run medical marijuana dispensaries, and a panel convened by the state Senate is examining the possibility of decriminalizing the possession of small quantities of the drug even without medical authorization. 

The representatives' bill would impose common-sense restrictions on the state's system of private cannabis growers. The legislation would forbid those convicted of capital offenses or felony drug charges from registering as caregivers, ensuring that sufferers of chronic conditions would not have to rely on people who have demonstrated their irresponsibility. It would also forbid growers from sharing their semi-legal produce with non-cardholders, ensuring that the modest amount of the drug that each individual is allowed to cultivate is reserved for those who need it most. Finally, Almeida and Carnevale propose to eliminate the status of caregiver as the dispensaries commence operations and provide a more reliable and controllable source of the substance.

The end of the caregiver system means that the dispensaries must be stringently focused on providing for chronic sufferers only, and the bill would give the state police the means to ensure that they are. It would allow them to conduct unannounced inspections of distribution centers, a crucial tool to prevent sales to recreational users and the concomitant risk of shortages for those who rely on access to drug. The police would also take over the task of reviewing dispensaries' sale records from the Department of Health, allowing them to better track evidence of inappropriate distribution. While this would be a positive development, lawmakers must remember that some officers may be accustomed to treating marijuana possession purely as a criminal offense and an unequivocal problem; the approval of this law entails the responsibility to monitor police oversight for evidence of overly aggressive behavior towards dispensary staff and customers.

Another common-sense provision of the new legislation would allow out-of-state residents to serve on the boards of Rhode Island dispensaries. Other states have had extensive experience with the operation of dispensaries. If their better-qualified residents want to help similar projects succeed in Rhode Island, they should be encouraged rather than prohibited.

Unfortunately, Almeida and Carnevale are considering an additional measure that their bill is better off without. Last week, they told the Providence Journal that they were weighing an attempt to eliminate a provision currently on the books that legally shields those arrested for marijuana possession if they subsequently secure a card authorizing medicinal use. The potential for abuse by recreational users claiming severe conditions is obvious. But a doctor's certification of medical need obtained before an arrest is no less likely to be disingenuous than one obtained afterwards. Furthermore, eliminating this defense would create an unfortunate double standard, penalizing those without the knowledge or connections to quickly obtain a card. 

The current bill, however, represents significant progress for Rhode Island's approach to medical marijuana. Overall, the changes that Almeida and Carnevale have proposed are sensible and well-tailored, and they exemplify the mix of modest liberalization and careful oversight that may make Rhode Island's forays into cannabis policy an example for the entire country.
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