“The very people that are benefiting from the legalization of weed aren’t the people that were most affected by the prohibition.”
By Christopher Shea, Rhode Island Current
Roberto Pena knows firsthand the damage the War on Drugs has done to communities of color.
“Their life gets on pause for something that is seemingly so minor as smoking weed, never mind selling it,” he said Wednesday. “I used to sell weed to get through college and was one of the few lucky friends that never got caught.”
Though marijuana has been legal since last December, Pena said not much positive change has come to communities like the South Side of Providence—something he hopes can be changed once regulations are established by Rhode Island’s newly-formed Cannabis Control Commission.
“The very people that are benefiting from the legalization of weed aren’t the people that were most affected by the prohibition,” Peña told the commission’s three members at the Southside Cultural Center of Rhode Island. “I would like to advocate for the state of Rhode Island to continue their progressive streak on this.”
Pena was among more than a dozen community members and cannabis workers who testified during the commission’s third stop on its summer listening tour which began July 20. Chair Kimberly Ahern and members Robert Jacquard and Olayiwola Oduyingbo were there only to listen and take notes.
Some commented on the need for set standards on labeling at recreational dispensaries and the healing properties of medicinal marijuana. But much of the focus during the 75-minute meeting was on ensuring the commission prioritizes social equity measures.
Under the state’s recreational marijuana law, the Cannabis Control Commission is empowered to grant 24 licenses to recreational dispensaries, with six reserved for social equity applicants and another six are reserved for worker-owned cooperatives.
The state defines a “social equity” applicant as someone who has “been disproportionately impacted by criminal enforcement of marijuana laws, including individuals convicted of nonviolent marijuana offenses, immediate family members of individuals convicted of nonviolent marijuana offenses, and individuals who have resided in disproportionately impacted areas for at least five of the last 10 years.”
Rhode Island Cannabis Justice Coalition member David-Alan Sumner, who was once incarcerated on cannabis charges, said the state’s definition can also be interpreted as applicants having employees from impacted communities.
That’s why he said he hopes the commission is especially careful in granting social equity licenses.
“Employment does not equal ownership,” he said.
Joseph Buchanan, president of the Rhode Island Black Political Action Education Committee, told commissioners he would like to see regulations mandate that revenue from cannabis go back to communities of color—particularly toward affordable housing and school funding.
“That is what we need,” he said. “The housing we have here is not affordable.”
Buchanan also singled out commissioner Oduyingbo, who is Black, to ensure those demands are met.
“It ain’t these rich folks giving you this money,” Buchanan said. “It’s the poor folks that are paying every day, buying every day, and people on medical disability.
“I am tired of seeing the money coming from our community heading out,” Buchanan continued.
As commissioners were instructed only to listen, Oduyingbo did not respond, though he did write notes as Buchanan commented.
Zara Salmon, founder of the Providence-based plant-lifestyle brand CRAVEInfused, also called for community reinvestment. She highlighted that the “marijuana trust fund” established in the Rhode Island Cannabis Act allows for grants to local law enforcement—the same entity that historically arrested people of color for minor drug offenses.
“Why can’t it be used to financially repair those communities?” she asked, generating applause from around a rom around a dozen of the 40 people in the audience.
So far in the commission’s listening tour, Ahern said that community members have expressed concerns about youth access to marijuana, the need for cultivators to advertise and patients wanting more clarity on the future of medical cannabis.
“We’ve learned a lot,” she said in an interview after the meeting.
But the biggest message is still the need to help communities impacted by the War on Drugs.
“Continuing to have moments where the public shares feedback like this is important,” Ahern said. “There’s a specific part of the [cannabis] act that’s about social equity funding—we need to think more deliberately about that and how we can best utilize that.”
Moving forward, Ahern said the commission intends to reach out to cannabis experts from Rhode Island and out of state to really hone in on potential regulations as it waits for the state to appoint a Cannabis Advisory Board. The board, which will consist of 11 voting and eight non-voting members, will make recommendations on rules and regulations to the commission.
Thankfully, Ahern said the commission said the state already has a framework from the Office of Cannabis Regulation and Department of Health to build off once an advisory board is formed.
“Hopefully that helps us move along,” she said.
The final session of the tour is scheduled for 1 p.m. Friday, August 18 at the Public Utilities Commission in Warwick. The public is invited to attend in-person, but encouraged to participate online via Zoom.
Written comment is also being accepted by the Commission all times, Ahern said. To submit, email [email protected].
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