Medical marijuana patients and advocates gathered at the State House Feb. 23 to protest the new “tagging fee” for medical marijuana included in Gov. Gina Raimondo’s recent budget proposal, unveiled Feb. 2. Though state officials argue that the proposal provides better access for Rhode Island’s 13,126 medical marijuana patients and increased standardization of drug testing, demonstrators said it will make the drug prohibitively expensive.
When medical marijuana patients or caregivers buy a plant, they would also need to pay for a tag, which verifies that the plant is to be used for medical purposes only.
“The proposed reforms would charge $350 per year per tag for caregivers and $150 per year per tag for patients who grow their own medicine,” said Michael Raia, communications director for the Rhode Island Executive Office of Health and Human Services. He added that the proposed “regulatory fee” could generate up to $8.4 million in general state revenue.
The proposed changes to the medical marijuana program will “improve accountability in the caregiving market and ensure patient access to medical marijuana,” Raia said. “The tag system will allow any enforcement action by (the Department of Business Regulation) or law enforcement to be much more straightforward, as all legally allowable plants will have to be accompanied by tags.”
He added that a portion of this revenue “will be reinvested into the administration of the medical marijuana program to accelerate the application process and improve patient access.”
But Steven Brown, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island, said “medical marijuana should be treated the same as any other medicine that is used to treat people.”
At a news conference held by the Rhode Island Patient Advocacy Coalition and the RIACLU, he said “having a medical marijuana program means little if the state makes it impossible for all but the wealthy to actually participate in it.”
The tagging system is a civil rights issue because it “essentially (taxes) people based on the fact that they have a disability,” Brown said.
“There’s really nothing in the bill that we do like,” said Peter Benson, a participant in the state’s medical marijuana program who attended the rally. Benson broke his back when he was 17 and relies on medical marijuana to treat uncontrollable muscle spasms that once caused him to fall out of his wheelchair. Benson had previously used muscle relaxants and Valium, both of which had debilitating side effects, adding that nothing worked as well as medical marijuana at controlling his symptoms.
JoAnne Leppanen, executive director of the RIPAC, called the proposal “offensive” and said that the government is “putting a tax on tragedy.” She believes that the population is confusing the medical marijuana program with the recreational use programs in other states that are heavily taxed.
Though Sen. Mark Gee, R-East Greenwich, North Kingstown, South Kingstown and Narragansett, is not in favor of most taxes proposed in the state legislature, he is also not a proponent of the medical marijuana program. “I am worried about rampant medical use or any other kind of use before we’ve got a better handle on what’s going on,” he said. “I don’t think Rhode Island needs to be a pioneer in terms of medical marijuana.”
R.I. Attorney General Peter Kilmartin has also voiced concerns with the medical marijuana program.
“We continue to have concerns and will express them with the Governor’s office after we complete our vetting of the proposal. The Attorney General supports a robust program protecting legitimate patients of the program,” wrote Amy Kempe, the public information officer for the Office of the Attorney General.
“The governor’s spokesperson said that each person is making $17,000 in revenue off of their plants. You would have to have a Christmas tree like the one that’s in the statehouse on the holidays to make that much revenue,” Leppanen said.
Ellen Smith, a medical marijuana patient and caregiver, said “It’s almost like a form of bullying, to think that you would pick on this community of people of all things.”
Smith said that advocates will continue to argue against the tax until the budget proposal is put to a vote in June. But battling this proposal is “so hard when you don’t feel well, and you have to keep advocating and fighting,” she said.
Rhode Island’s medical marijuana program currently allows patients with cancer, glaucoma, HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis C and some chronic diseases to apply for a medical marijuana license. Medical marijuana is not covered by insurance and therefore must be paid out-of-pocket by patients.
Patients have multiple options in terms of the source of their medical cannabis: They can grow it themselves, rely on a caregiver or go to one of Rhode Island’s Compassion Centers, the state’s dispensary program.
But while the compassion centers were originally meant to offer another treatment option to patients, the state soon saw them as sources of revenue, Leppanen said.
The state collects a 4 percent tax along with a 7 percent sales tax on medical marijuana from compassion centers.
“When they’re an option, they’re an expensive option,” Leppanen said.
Now, the proposed tax would push more medical marijuana users towards the compassion centers because growing their medicine at home could become unaffordable. Patients also often require specific strains that best treat their symptoms that are not carried by compassion centers, Leppanen said. In addition, many patients are afraid of the stigma that surrounds medical marijuana and the discrimination that results from it, and being forced to publicly go to a dispensary causes many patients anxiety.
Making medical marijuana less accessible will have other deleterious effects, Leppanen added, noting that many people seek out the medical marijuana program in an effort to reduce their dependence on opioids or to get off them entirely. The growing opioid epidemic in the Northeast may worsen if access to medical marijuana decreases, she added.
— With additional reporting by Julianne Center