Local Commentary: Marijuana Is Not The Enemy, Establishment Politics Is

open letter newport ri



The following was written and submitted by Michael J. Simpson. The views and opinions included in this op-ed do not necssarily represents those of What’sUpNewp’s management/staff, our advertisers or our sponsors.


If you support safe, sensible and common sense regulation of medical and recreational marijuana and don’t think that the town of Middletown should maintain a black market as the state moves towards regulation, you should attend the Town Council Meeting at 6PM on Tuesday, September 6th.

Our rights as citizens are under attack by the political establishment. Had it not been for the efforts of a few concerned citizens, the proceedings of the last few weeks would have been legislated in practical secrecy. As a result, we need your help, as registered voters and informed members of the electorate, to help keep a spotlight on this issue.

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Our elected officials have been operating shortsightedly, failing to properly inform the public of their actions, as well as of their motives. By neglecting its citizenry, the Town Council has denied us the democratic right of discussion of issues important to the community. This discussion needs to be held so that we can all, as citizens, properly inform ourselves of the issues at hand. The regulation of medical and recreational marijuana is precisely one of those issues.

“…the council asked the administration to work with the solicitor’s office to work on adding provisions to our ordinances which would provide the town the ability to manage any changes in the laws related to medical or recreational marijuana within the state and also within the town.”

These are the words of Town Administrator, Shawn Brown, during the July 18th Town Council Meeting. At this meeting, Mr. Brown explains what ordinances emerged from that discussion. The first of these ordinances dealt with the Zoning Code. As Mr. Brown explained, this ordinance was passed on to the Planning Board for an advisory opinion. This ordinance worked to effectively ban a state-licensed caregiver cardholder from providing medicine recommended by a state-licensed doctor for a state-licensed patient cardholder in the town of Middletown. Three separate individuals were licensed by the state in this interaction. Who is the Town Council to block this process?

I attended that Planning Board meeting, on August 10th. Following the introduction of the new business, which was titled “Request of the Town Council for an advisory recommendation on proposed zoning ordinance amendments to regulate the cultivation, distribution and sale of marijuana.” I spoke and voiced my opinion that this ordinance and its partner, which worked to prevent the town from issuing permits or licenses for something that is illegal at the local, state or federal level, were dangerous for the community. I made clear that regulation, rather than a black market, was safer. I noted that recreational cannabis stores have a legal and financial incentive to properly test and label their products, and to prevent their sale to minors.

Lori Verderosa, Coordinator of the Middletown Prevention Coalition, spoke to the board after I did, noting that these ordinances would not directly affect medical cardholders, as they still would be able to get in their car and drive to Portsmouth to the Greenleaf Compassionate Care to obtain their medicine. Had I the opportunity to respond to that comment, I would note the illnesses recommended for patient cardholders (epilepsy, Crohn’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and more recently, post-traumatic stress) and indicate that to force any person with these types of illnesses towards any sort of undue burden, especially when the state has specifically provided these patients with a particular method of medicine delivery that suits their needs, is most certainly a danger to the quality of life for the sick patients of the Town of Middletown.

Planning Board Chair Art Weber appropriately noted that there was enough public input to push the advisory opinion until the next Planning Board meeting, on September 14th. He also noted that he imagined that as more press was published, and more people became aware of the issue, that it would become a pressing one for the town. He stated that maybe the best idea, going forward, would be to form a committee, compiled from town residents, that could effectively inform the Board on this issue, though that idea would wait to be discussed until the meeting on the 14th. The ordinance was therefore postponed, and the danger to the community, in my mind, was at least put aside until the next meeting. Once the Planning Board meeting adjourned, I introduced myself to the various men on the Planning Board, as well as the Town Planning Director, Ron Wolanski.

Having just moved back to the Island after living in Brooklyn, New York for the last three years, I only recently became active in local politics. During my undergraduate career at the University of Maine, I worked for four years as a sensible drug policy advocate, traveling to conferences throughout the United States and Canada, learning the best ways to deal with drug use and abuse. Even with all this experience, I was still unclear following the Planning Board meeting if the ordinances would be on hold until the 14th. Mr. Wolanski assured me that it would not be addressed until then. He, however, was unaware of the partner licensing ordinance.

That ordinance, which works to effectively limit the town from providing licenses and permits to any businesses that would violate local, state or federal law, would be raised before the Town Council during their meeting less than a week later, on August 15th. That meeting lasted over four hours, and for less than a minute they discussed the ordinance, which was titled “An Ordinance in Amendment to the Town Code of the Town of Middletown, Title XI Business Regulations, Chapter 110 General Provisions, Section 110.01 Issuance and Renewal of Town Licenses and Permits”. This title makes absolutely no mention to marijuana, unlike its partner ordinance before the Planning Board. After thirty-six seconds, the Town Council moves on.

Thirty-six seconds is how long the Council spent on deciding to create an undue burden for sick patients. Thirty-six seconds is how long the Council spent on deciding to maintain an illegal black market when a safer, regulated market is being proposed. Thirty-six seconds is how long the Council spent deciding whether or not to adopt hundreds of thousands of dollars in annual tax revenue. Uproar ensued.

I was under the assumption, based on my discussion with Mr. Wolanski, that these ordinances, which were both introduced together to “manage any changes in the laws related to medical or recreational marijuana,” were both on hold until the September 14th Planning Board meeting. A quick scan of the August 15th Town Council agenda revealed no mention of marijuana or cannabis at all, though it was there, tucked away amongst the fifty other items of that four-hour meeting.

I worked quickly to organize Middletown citizens of varying shapes, sizes and ages to mobilize against the passing of this ordinance, which could potentially ban additional compassion centers from opening their doors in Middletown. Apparently, as the Town Administrator, Mr. Brown, notes during the July 18th Town Council meeting, they hope to never open any additional compassion centers in Middletown. Clearly Mr. Brown is unaware of the medicinal benefits provided by the drugs sold at these compassion centers, and the illnesses for which they are recommended. If he was aware, then he most certainly wouldn’t be working to create undue burdens for patients recommended medicine by licensed medical professionals.

Many members of the group I organized, which is called Regulate Middletown, worked together to reach out to the various council members to voice what they felt was a hasty and inappropriate passing of an ordinance. In the email replies from various council members, this licensing and permitting ordinance, which was introduced in conjunction with the zoning ordinance, suddenly developed an entirely new purpose. Even in a Newport Daily News Article about the ordinance, Council President Robert Sylvia attempted to quickly shift the purpose of the ordinance;

“It’s not just about marijuana, but banning our licensing of any illegal activity or substance in the town, which is quite common in Rhode Island,” Sylvia said. “There are pesticides and landscaping chemicals that can be sold legally in Massachusetts and not Rhode Island. It’s about that and issuing licenses for massage parlors that are nothing more than fronts for prostitution. It’s about not allowing off-track betting parlors, something else that’s not legal in Rhode Island.”

Here Sylvia tries to paint the proposed ordinance as also being a means to protect Middletown residents from pesticides and landscaping chemicals, pseudo-massage parlors and off-track betting. This would most definitely make sense if these were mentioned during the discussion of the ordinance during the Town Council meeting on July 18th. Instead, marijuana was mentioned as the sole purpose of this ordinance five times by the Town Administrator and an additional five times by Councilman Lombardi.

Throughout the meeting, Councilman Lombardi continued to make comments that further confused this entire issue. He stated; “…it’s not about the adult that wants to make the choice, if it’s legalized, to go out and smoke marijuana or drink alcohol. It’s about the risk to our kids. And that’s what most important to me…” While this is certainly a noble perspective, that we should indeed protect our youth from any drugs that could potentially permanently alter their brain before it is fully developed, his means to achieve this goal is bewildering.

The regulation bill that is currently sitting in committee in the Providence State House, deals with this issue specifically. Under 21-28.10-5, in the section titled “Ineligibility for registration”, the bill notes that; “A marijuana establishment may not operate, and a prospective marijuana establishment may not apply for a registration, if any of the following are true: (1) The entity would be located within one thousand feet (1000′) of the property line of a pre-existing public or private school…” On top of this, the bill includes sections that state that licenses to sell recreational marijuana will be revoked and that the holders will be fined, if it is discovered that they were selling the drugs to minors.

This is where the logic gets very confusing. Councilman Lombardi claims that his issue is most importantly about the children, and yet he chooses to perpetuate an illegal black market. Nationwide, studies have been conducted in the states where marijuana has been legalized and the overall trajectory is clear; regulation does not lead to increased teen use. While data can be cherry-picked from small data samples, the appropriately conducted surveys that question thousands of individuals point in one, simple direction; regulation does not lead to increased teen use. A legal business has a vested interest in maintaining a legal distribution of their product. An illegal dealer on the black market has no such incentive, and also has no incentive to not also offer other illicit drugs like cocaine or heroin. Ask any student which is easier to obtain in the halls of Middletown High School, a gram of marijuana or a bottle of Jack Daniels, and the evidence is clear; regulation does not lead to increased teen use.

In email responses from the various council members, several made an effort to make light of the situation, stating that they were unaware what was being voted on during the August 15th Town Council meeting. In those emails, some council members stated that it was passed in an “underhanded way”, and that they were “just as surprised” as us advocates when they read the paper on August 16th and learned that they had banned the sale of marijuana.

While this may have been an attempt to alleviate the anger of the advocates for regulation, this instead pushed us in the opposite direction. It was disconcerting that our local officials had simply become mindless rubber stamps, effectively passing anything that came across their desk without the least bit of discussion amongst themselves. What else, aside from the regulation of cannabis, are they legislating on, unaware of?

Furthermore, when it comes to down it, it has become brutally clear to me that these men and women have not even glanced at the regulation bill in the State House. If they had, they’d know that all their issues in regards to youth access had already been addressed in that bill. Additionally they would have seen section 21-28.10-6, which is titled “Municipalities.” It states that;

“Nothing shall prohibit municipalities from enacting ordinances or regulations not in conflict with this section or with department rules regulating the time, place, and manner of marijuana establishments’ operations, provided that no local government may prohibit any type of marijuana establishments’ operation altogether, either expressly or through the enactment of ordinances or regulations which make any type of marijuana establishments’ operation impracticable.”

This section effectively bans municipalities from enacting ordinances or regulations that make any type of regulated establishment impractical. So, if the legislators are not even reading the bills placed in front of them, let alone the ones they are seemingly fighting against, how can we trust them? And if these bills already take into account the worries of the council members and appropriately address them, what is the ultimate purpose of these ordinances? Especially if the ordinances themselves would be inherently illegal under the regulation bill?

In this visceral election cycle, with the rise of candidates that makes clear that the voting populous is fed up with the establishment-style politics, one would think our local legislators would be acting appropriately. And yet here, at home, this style of politics is still business as usual. When you have council members actively legislating against sick state-licensed patient cardholders, some of which could be our ailing veterans, you have to wonder; what are their intentions?

A 2015 Public Policy Polling poll was published that noted that fifty-seven percent of registered voters supported regulating marijuana like alcohol in Rhode Island. When that poll is broken down by age groups, my own age group, one of the largest voting blocs on the national stage, and the next one to take over political power from their incumbents, supports regulation at seventy-three percent. A breakdown of the results of this poll in neighboring Newport reiterated that data; with fifty-seven percent approving of regulating marijuana like alcohol.

Again, I ask, if this is the current state of affairs, and we know that there is no evidence that suggests that regulation increases use by teens, what is the ultimate goal of these ordinances? I urge you, your friends, and your family, to all attend the next Town Council meeting, this Tuesday, September 6th at 6PM to find out.

Click here for the Facebook event.

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