View Full Version : Growing pains: R.I. medical marijuana growers, patients double in a year

10-02-2010, 06:32 PM
Growing pains: R.I. medical marijuana growers, patients double in a year

08:33 AM EDT on Friday, September 17, 2010
By W. Zachary Malinowski

Journal Staff Writer

Kirk Manter has converted a room in his house into a greenhouse. A sodium vapor light, which casts a yellow hue, simulates daylight.
The Providence Journal / Glenn Osmundson

Since legislation was passed in 2006 creating a medical marijuana program, Rhode Island has seen rapid growth in the number of people legally permitted to smoke cannabis to cope with a host of medical maladies, including chronic pain, anxiety, hypertension and nausea.

There are now 2,250 patients in the program and 1,656 caregivers, or those permitted to grow up to 24 marijuana plants for designated patients. That’s more than double the numbers from a year ago

Health Department spokesman Peter Hanney said that officials decline to speculate on the reasons why interest in the program has exploded in recent months. More than 300 licenses have been issued to patients and caregivers in the past four weeks.

“That’s between the patient and their doctor,” Hanney said. A medical professional must attest to a qualified medical condition to allow a person to apply for a medical marijuana user’s license.

Manter, a licensed grower, shows the leaves on one of the plants he is growing inside his house.
The Providence Journal / Glenn Osmundson

The surge in patients comes as the Health Department prepares to choose one or more operators to run nonprofit medical marijuana dispensaries.

Last week, the department put the brakes on its plans to grant a license to the first dispensary or compassion center this month. .

The move, after months of review by the department of applications for the licenses, infuriated many of the 15 applicants for dispensary permits as well as a patient advocacy group. The department, which decided that none of the applicants qualified for a license, plans to restart the application process in October. Many of the original applicants, who spent thousands of dollars in hopes of opening the first compassion center, are expected to apply a second time.

The dispensaries, which would grow their own marijuana, would be in addition to the current private arrangements between licensed patients and growers.

Sometime early next year, a full-scale marijuana dispensary is expected to be up and running in at least one and as many as three locations in the state. Many medical marijuana patients, who are uncomfortable dealing with a private marijuana grower, feel that the dispensaries will provide them with a safe haven to buy cannabis. Others have complained that the compassion centers will charge too much for the drug — in some cases more than $400 an ounce — and make it unaffordable for patients on fixed incomes.

The Cranston police had a major bust two weeks ago, seizing $500,000 in marijuana. Cranston Police Maj. John Schaffran and Lt. Russell Henry Jr. display packages of marijuana at the police station.
The Providence Journal / Ruben W. Perez

A director of one of the groups that applied for permission to open a dispensary in the initial round of applications predicted that his business would have about 6,000 customers within the first two years.

Marijuana, which has been cultivated for thousands of years, remains the most popular recreational drug in the world, according to several studies. Top federal, state and local law-enforcement officials said that the growth in the state-licensed use of marijuana and the impending opening of compassion centers will not curtail their efforts to keep the drug off the streets.

Col. Brendan P. Doherty, superintendent of the state police, said that his department understands that people in the medical marijuana program have legitimate reasons for needing the drug, and his troopers will comply with the law.

But, he said, the state police will remain vigilant and keep close tabs on the compassion centers and how they operate. He wants to make sure that those permitted to grow and sell the drug are not also dabbling in illegal activities.

“We know there are some major marijuana dealers who enjoy this contradiction in values,” he said.

Doherty pointed out two major flaws in the medical marijuana program: one is that people in a dispensary operation are subject only to a Rhode Island criminal background check. He said that the Bureau of Criminal Information search would not turn up criminal convictions in states outside of Rhode Island.

The second problem is that state officials are prohibited from providing the police with the names of licensed medical marijuana users and caregivers. Last month, the state police developed information that a man was dealing marijuana from his expansive property in Scituate. Following an investigation that lasted several months, the state police did aerial surveillance, obtained a search warrant and sent in a SWAT team to arrest the man.

It turned out that he had a medical marijuana grower’s license, but the medical marijuana statute requires that the names of people in the program remain confidential. The Health Department is only permitted to confirm to police that a license it has issued to grow or use marijuana is valid. The police cannot find out in advance of confronting a suspect whether the person has a medical marijuana license.

Doherty said that he will lobby the next session of the General Assembly to get this provision of the law changed.

The office of the U.S. Attorney General in October issued a memorandum advising federal prosecutors across the nation on how to deal with marijuana investigations in the 14 states and the District of Columbia where medical marijuana is legal.

The memo instructs federal law enforcement agencies to back off from patients allowed to smoke the drug, but to go aftertraffickers.

“The prosecution of significant traffickers of illegal drugs, including marijuana, and the disruption of illegal drug manufacturing and trafficking networks continues to be a core priority in the [Justice] Department’s efforts against narcotics and dangerous drugs, and the Department’s investigative and prosecutorial resources should be directed towards these objectives,” Deputy Attorney General David W.Ogden wrote.

JoAnne Leppanen, executive director of the Rhode Island Patient Advocacy Coalition, said that all but a very small percentage of the caregivers are law-abiding marijuana providers. She said that her organization does not come to the defense of those who choose to profit illegally from the medical marijuana program.

“It gives the program a black eye,” she said.

In Rhode Island, anyone with a “debilitating medical condition” can get permission for a medical marijuana license from a doctor, nurse practitioner or physician’s assistant. They, as well as the patient, submit a one-page application to the Health Department.

A caregiver must be at least 21 years old and have no felony drug convictions. Caregivers are allowed to grow up to 24 plants and provide marijuana for up to five licensed patients.

There have been multiple cases investigated by police departments in Providence, Tiverton and elsewhere where licensed growers have been arrested and charged with growing more than 24 plants , or with dealing other drugs and having unregistered guns in their possession.

“It’s not a stretch to think firearms are involved when they are growing marijuana,” said Lt. Michael E. Correia, who runs the Providence police narcotics and organized crime unit.
“They present targets for home invasions.”

A few months ago, a licensed patient/caregiver shot and killed an intruder who tried to break into his apartment on Chalkstone Avenue in Providence where he was growing marijuana. He was not charged in the shooting, but he was charged with growing more marijuana than the law allows and two weapons offenses.

The police also point out that the possession of marijuana for those not licensed in the medical marijuana program is a crime. Under state law, possession of less than 2.2 pounds is a misdemeanor, and the penalties increase for possession of larger amounts or unlicensed cultivation of the drug. There have been efforts in the General Assembly to decriminalize possession of an ounce or less of marijuana, but so far those proposals have died. The state police and other law enforcement agencies have expressed their opposition.

The enforcement of marijuana laws depends on the community.

In Barrington, for example, the police routinely arrest and charge teenagers and young adults who are caught smoking small amounts of marijuana. Warwick Police Chief Stephen McCartney said that his patrols regularly arrest young people on marijuana possession charges. He believes it’s important for the police to send a message to the city’s youth.

“It should not be a summonsable offense,” McCartney said.
“It becomes a joke. A law is a law.”

In Providence, Lieutenant Correia said the decision on charging someone found with a small quantity of marijuana is left to the “discretion” of the officers. Last year, a Journal reporter spent a night shift with a patrolman working in the city’s Olneyville and Manton neighborhoods. About a half-dozen of the 12 people he stopped or pulled over had small amounts of marijuana. He charged only one, a man who lied about his identity and had an outstanding warrant for his arrest on a past charge.

In the other cases, the officer seized the marijuana and destroyed it on the street. The officer was more interested in finding weapons and more potent drugs — cocaine and heroin.

Federal, state and local law enforcement agencies are always looking for the major growers and traffickers who are responsible for most of the illegal marijuana on the streets.

Two weeks ago, the Cranston police stopped a motorist with a stack of cash in a bag that smelled of marijuana. The man, Jeffrey Batres of Cranston, was a convicted drug dealer on probation. Investigators went to his house on Perkins Avenue and found packages of marijuana with a street value of $500,000.

U.S. Attorney Peter F. Neronha, the top federal prosecutor in Rhode Island, said that his office will continue the crackdown on marijuana traffickers. He cited data showing that cannabis generates about 60 percent of the profits for the ruthless Mexican drug cartels.
“It fuels violent activity or other kinds of drug trafficking,” he said.

Neronha’s office prosecuted a major trafficking case last year in which two men pleaded guilty to conspiracy to possess and distribute marijuana. They were caught transporting 769 pounds of the drug in a tractor-trailer from Canada to Rhode Island.

One of the traffickers, Jason Bremmer, 31, of Westerly, was sentenced to three years in prison; his codefendant, Mario Sorgiacomo, 41, of Quebec, Canada, received a sentence of 30 months for the same charge.


Where is medical marijuana legal in the United States?

Rhode Island and 13 other states, as well as the District of Columbia. The other states are Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Michigan,

Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Vermont and Washington.

How many licensed users and caregivers are there in Rhode Island ?

According to the Health

Department, there are 2,250 patients and 1,656 caregivers, or suppliers. 183 marijuana plants found in house

Richard C. Dujardin