2016-04-21 / Around Town

Councilor Offers Blunt Marijuana Plan

By Olga Enger

As Rhode Island lawmakers debate the legalization of marijuana, a Middletown councilor wants the town to be prepared.

“I truly believe that at some point down the road, maybe not this year, we are going to be dealing with the recreational legalization of marijuana,” said Councilor Henry Lombardi at the Town Council meeting on Monday, April 18. Through a two-page memorandum, he suggested the town draft a zoning ordinance that would address the cultivation, distribution and retail sale of both medical and recreational marijuana.

“I want to be able to limit it. I want to be able to regulate it,” Lombardi said.

Rhode Island has been progressively relaxing marijuana laws since 2006.

A state program of medical marijuana was enacted in 2006, which allows approved patients to grow and use marijuana. 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. Although marijuana is still illegal in the state, there are currently bills in the House and Senate that propose the legalization of recreational marijuana use.

As of November, the state had over 15,500 approved cardholders who may legally grow and buy marijuana for medicinal purposes. Locally, the Greenleaf Compassion Center in Portsmouth served 2,200 patients, who are mostly Newport County residents.

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

Lombardi believes that Rhode Island will eventually legalize the drug because it is a source of revenue.

“Zoning should be a right that your city or town has. It’s always been that way,” said Lombardi.

Middletown resident Carol Formica, who has been a vocal opponent of marijuana legalization, said Lombardi is not sending a strong enough message to the General Assembly.

“It’s as if Mr. Lombardi is waving a white flag and giving up the battle,” she said before council. Formica added that ordinances won’t minimize the detrimental effects the legislation would have on Middletown residents.

Lombardi argued he isn’t “waving a white flag” but wants to be ready.

“All I’m saying is that if they legalize it, so be it,” said Lombardi. “We will have to deal with it. I really have a problem that there is a possibility that they are going to tell us how to zone our communities.”

But Lombardi did not disagree with risks associated with children, and he is concerned that after Colorado and Washington legalized marijuana, usage increased among youths.

“Marijuana use during adolescence and early adulthood results in impaired neural connectivity in several areas of the brain associated with learning and memory, and provides an explanation for developmental problems such as lower IQ scores, poorer school performance, higher school dropout rates, and impaired verbal, cognitive and attention performance,” he said.

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).

Formica said in Colorado, a company called Incredibles sells marijuana-infused candy bars and gum. The company Dixie Brands sells marijuana-infused chocolates, cookies, lollipops, soda and candy.

“These pot-infused treats portray a retail industry that looks more like marijuana’s version of Candyland,” said Formica.

Despite the recent changes to marijuana laws, Middletown police said they have not experienced many issues with enforcement.

“There hasn’t been a big uptick in issues from a law enforcement perspective,” reported Major Ferenc Karoly in a November interview. He said that might change if Rhode Island legalizes the drug.

“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?”

Lombardi said the ordinance should prohibit “pot shops” from opening up in areas near schools or children.

“I want to be able to regulate them and regulate them responsibly. I’m not talking about banning them,” Lombardi said.

Two Middletown School Committee members spoke in favor of his recommendation.

“We do need to get in front of this,” said School Committee Vice Chair Kellie Simeone, referencing concern for Middletown’s children.

“We are very concerned about career pathways. Many of the businesses we work with are very upset,” said School Committee member Liana Ferreira-Fenton, referencing businesses that have government contracts requiring drug testing. “If workers fail the test, they have to leave. Business owners have to rebuild their workplace.”

Karoly said the ultimate responsibility comes down to parents, who should speak to their children about drugs, including prescription drugs.

“Pills are a readily accessible drug for children. Teenagers are savvy. They raid medicine cabinets,” he said. “These pills have a street value and they are dangerous.”

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