2015-11-19 / Front Page

Nobody Is Blowing Smoke About Marijuana

By Olga Enger

Local experts say despite a twofold increase in the medical marijuana program since last year and the recent move to decriminalize the drug, there have been no adverse impacts to the community. The state currently has over 15,500 approved cardholders, who may legally grow and buy marijuana. Locally, the Greenleaf Compassion Center in Portsmouth serves 2,200 patients, who are mostly Newport County residents.

“There hasn’t been a big uptick in issues from a law enforcement perspective,” reported Middletown Deputy Chief Ferenc Karoly. “It’s hard to say if more people are using it, but we haven’t noticed a huge change.”

Cardholders consist of both caregivers and patients under the state program, which was enacted in 2006. More recently, in 2013, Rhode Island joined 25 other states, including Massachusetts and Connecticut, to decriminalize the possession of up to one ounce of marijuana.

“We haven’t noticed an observable change in the number of people we see with marijuana. It’s just that instead of making an arrest, they are issued a citation,” said Karoly.

After the 2006 law was signed, a moratorium was placed on compassion centers due to a discrepancy in state and federal law, which does not include a provision for medical marijuana.

“There were no compassion centers for many years, so the law allowed patients and caregivers to grow marijuana. That never changed,” said Joseph Wendelken with the Rhode Island Department of Health.

A patient may possess up to 12 marijuana plants and two-and-ahalf ounces of usable marijuana. Caregivers may possess up to double that amount, as long as they have two qualifying patients registered to them through the Department of Health.

Greenleaf, which was launched in 2009, is one of the three stateapproved retail providers of marijuana. The others are the Thomas C. Slater Compassion Center in Providence and the Summit Medical Compassion Center in Warwick.

“One night I dreamed of the words ‘compassion center,’” said Seth Brock, owner of Greenleaf. “The next morning I read the state was seeking applicants for compassion centers. It was like a premonition.”

Although he grows his product at a Newport facility, compassion centers may also buy marijuana from cardholders.

“We purchase a small amount, around 20 percent, from local cardholders,” said Brock.

While seated in a spa-like environment surrounded by plants and gentle music, Greenleaf staff provides customers recommendations on dosages, potential side effects and the varieties available. Customers may even pick up marijuana fudge brownies and gluten free cookies.

“Between five and 10 percent of our patients have never tried marijuana,” explained Greenleaf manager Petra Napolitano. “We sit down with them for as long as it takes to make sure they are educated.” An ounce of marijuana costs customers between $250 and $400, which is not covered by insurance companies.

To obtain a card, residents must first obtain a prescription and then apply for approval with the department. There are 684 medical practitioners that prescribe marijuana, according to a 2015 Department of Health report.

Program participants must have a debilitating condition as outlined in the law.

The majority of state participants, or 64 percent, are diagnosed with debilitating or chronic pain. Lesser-named diagnoses are severe muscle spasms (12 percent), severe nausea (10 percent), cancer (five percent), wasting syndrome (three percent), hepatitis C (three percent), seizures, (two percent), glaucoma (one percent), HIV/AIDS (one percent) and agitation related to Alzheimer’s disease (.10 percent).

“In the years I’ve been a police officer, I can’t remember a time I’ve been confronted with a really combative person under the influence of marijuana,” said Karoly. “I don’t think people should be using alcohol. It causes a big bulk of our problems as law enforcement.”

“If alcohol was illegal, I would be out of business in a month,” agreed Newport-based criminal defense attorney Kevin Hagan. “Even before marijuana was decriminalized, there was a tolerance in sentencing,” he said. “This was in the minds and the hearts of people before the legislation.”

Although the issues are limited, the medical marijuana program has introduced at least two categories of cases, said Hagan.

“I’m seeing cardholders who are growing and in possession of way more than they are permitted,” said Hagan. He added there are also people who have used the Medical Marijuana Act as a guise for distributing marijuana to non-patients.

“We have made a handful of arrests of people with cards for illegally selling marijuana. But I don’t know if it’s a huge problem,” Karoly confirmed.

Newport police declined to comment on marijuana enforcement issues.

Hagan, who taught the medical marijuana law at Community College of Rhode Island, said there are still many unanswered questions within the law.

“When police find more plants than a cardholder is allowed, the question I often ask is whether the marijuana is considered usable,” explained the attorney.

Another unanswered question in Rhode Island concerns probable cause: If marijuana has a legal use, should police be able to search a car because of the smell?

A bill introduced last year to legalize recreational marijuana in Rhode Island will likely be debated during the next legislative session. Recreational use is legal in Colorado, Oregon, Alaska and Washington, D.C.

“If Rhode Island decided to legalize marijuana, we may have a different conversation,” said Karoly. “It sends a different message, even to kids. Allowing recreational use of drugs is a slippery slope. When do we stop?”

Forty percent of Rhode Island high school students have tried marijuana at least once, and 24 percent currently use the substance, according to a 2013 report published by the Center for Disease Control (CDC).

Karoly recommends parents talk about marijuana with their kids, in the same way they discuss other drugs and alcohol.

“Just because it is not criminal, doesn’t mean it’s good or safe,” said the deputy chief. He stressed parents should also be vigilant about prescription pills.

“Pills are a readily accessible drug for children. Teenagers are savvy. They raid medicine cabinets. These pills have a street value and they are dangerous,” said Karoly. The public may drop off unwanted pills in a drop box located in the Middletown Police Department lobby.

“There is still a lot of confusion around the marijuana law. But is it better to have no law? Or to self regulate?” asked Hagan. “The law, as vague as it may be, provides a framework. I think the answer is we have a medical marijuana law that we can improve upon in the future.”

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