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Recreational marijuana sales open Thursday in Rhode Island

Ocean State becomes 19th state to legalize sale, use of recreational marijuana, dispensaries hope for increase in sales

On Thursday morning, 96-year-old Joe Maraia became the first person to legally purchase marijuana for recreational use in Rhode Island at the Thomas C. Slater Compassion Center. The World War II Veteran had never tried cannabis before and walked away from the dispensary with marijuana-infused macaroons and chocolate chip cookies. 

As of Dec. 1, licensed dispensaries in the Ocean State can legally sell recreational marijuana to individuals 21 years and older. Rhode Island is now the 19th state to have legalized the sale and use of recreational cannabis.

Gov. Dan McKee signed the Cannabis Act in May, legalizing recreational use and possession alongside the existing sale of medical marijuana, The Herald previously reported. The act also created a Cannabis Control Commission, which is composed of three members who are appointed by the governor and oversee the regulation, licensing and control of use of marijuana.

Following the act, five compassion centers — licensed medical marijuana dispensaries — in Rhode Island were approved to sell recreational marijuana, including the Slater Center in Providence, according to a Nov. 22 press release. The other four dispensaries are located in Central Falls, Pawtucket, Portsmouth and Warwick. According to the act, up to 33 total hybrid dispensaries may be approved in the state. 

The energy on Thursday was “great,” said Chris Reilly, spokesperson for the Slater Center. Upon walking into the dispensary, individuals are asked to either show their ID or medical marijuana card. The facility inside is split for recreational and medical use, with kiosks to order products and a separate line for picking up online orders. 

“It's like a Mecca — it's a beautiful place,” said Mike Reginakabalu, a resident of Rhode Island who came to the Slater Center Thursday to purchase marijuana. Reginakabalu was unable to renew his medical marijuana card about two years ago because his hospital no longer allowed its doctors to issue them, he explained. Until yesterday, he drove to Massachusetts dispensaries and kept his own marijuana plants, which were legalized in May’s Cannabis Act. 

“Now, I don’t have to grow my own,” Reginakabalu said. With the large amount of electricity necessary to grow marijana plants, he said it is time to give his away. 

“I’d rather support a place like this,” he added. 

The Slater Center is anticipating an increase in business, according to Reilly. Greenleaf Compassionate Care Center in Portsmouth also hopes to see an uptick in sales, although its main focus will continue to be serving those with medical marijuana cards, said Ted Newcomer Jr., the dispensary’s chief of staff and compliance officer. 

“I think it’s good for the industry, and it's good for employment,” Newcomer said. “We’re gonna see new industry grow out of this.” 

Reilly also spoke about the “evolving” industry, noting the historic arrest and imprisonment of individuals — especially people of color — found in possession of small quantities of marijuana. Now, there are “safe and regulated places” where people can purchase marijuana products. 

“We’re creating an environment where people are no longer going to be subject to arrest or prosecution for possession,” Reilly said. “For us, it’s kind of an exciting thing to do.”

“I hope that the … taxes collected will be used for some positive things,” said one Brown student who spoke to The Herald on the condition of anonymity. “Hopefully some of the money goes towards aiding those who have been previously negatively affected by legislation.” 

Another student who spoke on the condition of anonymity said they thought the legalization was “a good thing” because it is safer to buy cannabis products from a dispensary rather than from a dealer. The student, who uses marijuana products regularly, plans to go to the Slater Center instead of a Massachusetts dispensary that they and other students occasionally drive to. 

While anyone 21 and older can purchase marijuana, the Slater Center cannot advertise to the general public, Reilly said. Currently, dispensaries may only advertise to a “direct patient audience,” but he hopes the Cannabis Control Commission will address issues like this. 

“Right now, … we’re very limited in what we can do in advertising, and we hope that changes fairly soon,” Reilly said. The center has signs within the facility, along its building and on the outside gate that indicates that the center now sells to individuals aged 21 years and older. But it has not been able to advertise in other ways.

For Reginakabalu, marijuana use is more than just “an old hippie thing.” With the new legalization, he wishes everyone will “give it a shot.” 

“I think it's a really good situation for everyone,” Reginakabalu added.

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