by by Lillian Mathews

illustration by by Samantha Ballardini

A new amendment to Rhode Island law has clarified
how qualified citizens will obtain medical marijuana
within the next year.
Despite Governor Donald Carcieri’s two vetoes, the Rhode
Island General Assembly enacted The Edward O. Hawkins
and Thomas C. Slater Medical Marijuana Act in 2006. The
act allows patients with debilitating medical conditions such
as cancer or glaucoma up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana (about
12 plants) at any given time. Additionally, the 953 patients
in the state program are allowed two caregivers with no past
drug felonies to help procure the marijuana.
But the law failed to establish how users and caregivers were
to obtain the drug. To address that question, Rhode Island
Congress passed an amendment to the 2006 Act in August
that green-lit the construction of a state-operated ‘compas-
sion center’ over the next year—a place where patients who
qualify under the Medical Marijuana Act may safely purchase
the drug. The new law forces the state’s Health Department
to look into necessary preparations for planning up to three
of these types of facilities over the next three years.
Part of the pressure to amend the 2006 act came from the
Rhode Island Patient Advocacy Program (RIPAC), a non-
profit organization in the state working to promote dialogue
between patients, medical workers, and law enforcement.
Patient outcry in the form of demonstrations and mass letter
writing campaigns put additional pressure on legislators.
One South County resident who asked to remain anony-
mous used medical marijuana during a series of radiation
treatments after being diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007.
The University of Rhode Island employee chose medical
marijuana after experiencing adverse side effects from the
drugs her doctor had prescribed.
“For my first treatment,” she explained, “my mother took
me in. I went into the locker room that would be mine for
the next month and a half to put on the hospital gown and
then to the treatment.
“The next day I was really feeling sick to my stomach, but I
thought the nausea had to be all in my head. I called a friend,
who then showed up at my door at 8:30 in the morning with
ginger ale, crackers, and a joint,” she said. “I was miserable.
But after three hits the nausea just completely lifted off me.”
Getting on the RI Medical Marijuana Registry is a fairly
straightforward process. Requirements include being a
Rhode Island resident above 18 years old, suffering from a
debilitating medical condition, and having a possible care-
giver with no criminal drug convictions. But a patient can
only get the paperwork via the recommendation of a doctor.
For the woman from South County, this is a major prob-
lem with the current system.
“I was not offered medical marijuana. Nobody said that
I could get a ‘legal prescription.’ My doctor didn’t offer me
anything. It was up to me to find it,” she said.
safety issues
The proposed compassion centers would allow patients a safe
and stable source of medical marijuana—and remove any
worries about finding a reliable dealer. When dealing with
street dealers, studies find that patients who don’t normally
use the drug are more vulnerable to scams. The marijuana
could be laced with dangerous illegal substances, or might
be another plant altogether, commonly alfalfa. There is also
a higher chance of being robbed during a street transaction
than if the marijuana comes from a clinic.
The dangers of acquiring marijuana certainly aren’t limited
to city streets. Another problem under the 2006 act concerns
medical marijuana providers—people who produce medical-
grade marijuana specifically for patients who have applied
under the Act. According to State Police Captain David
Neill, these suppliers have increasingly become targets for
break-ins. One particular grower in Olneyville has made lo-
cal headlines for suffering four apartment thefts over the past
year. Domenic Parillo, one of the apartment’s owners and a
legally assigned caregiver under the Medical Marijuana Act,
had converted three of his bedrooms into climate-controlled
areas to grow marijuana for patients enrolled in the state
According to Parillo in a Providence Journal feature pub-
lished in October, every time his operation suffers a break-in,
his yield is pushed back approximately three weeks. Patients
who rely on his marijuana are forced to look elsewhere.
not so fast
The proposed compassion center is completely new terri-
tory for the state, and despite releasing a 22-page report on
needed regulations for the facility, RI’s Health Department
has been questioned heavily regarding details of the proposed
dispensary. Specifically, the report fails to address how law
enforcement will be involved. Police Captain Neill asked
Health Department officials at a recent hearing who exactly
would monitor the amount and potency of marijuana sold.
At this time, those officials are unable to provide answers,
though they may release new rules as soon as this week.
“You’re going to need security, but the [law] doesn’t talk
about security. It doesn’t talk about where the plants will be
grown, or whether they’ll be brought in,” Neill said. “Right
now it doesn’t establish one person who’s going to make sure
the compassion centers are abiding by the rules. That’s a
Critics of the amendment also want to know how medical
supervision will play out in regards to facility oversight. As
it currently reads, the new law fails to mention how Rhode
Island compassion centers would be affiliated with medical
Though Rhode Island is one of 13 states with medical
marijuana laws, it is only one of three that has passed legisla-
tion about a dispensary. California and New Mexico are the
two others, though each state’s law dictates a slightly different
system. California’s dispensaries are not state-run, while New
Mexico’s legislation only allows for a home-delivery system
monitored by a health professional. Rhode Island would be
the first to have a state-run facility.
Another major problem with the compassion center con-
cerns funding. Though the General Assembly passed the law,
it failed to allocate any funding to the Health Department
or any other agency to help start up or monitor the facility.
For what will likely be an expensive undertaking, this cre-
ates problems in how well the dispensary can cover costs for
adequate health and law enforcement.
for the people
Despite the controversy, many citizens believe that a large
part of the problem with Rhode Island’s situation is the gen-
eral stigmatization of marijuana, medical or otherwise.
“It would have been great had I been given a safe place
to get it,” the South County resident said. “I think many
women who suffer through chemo and radiation would be
more willing to try the drug if it was totally legal. I talked to
women from a breast cancer chat site and most would not
even hear about marijuana because it is illegal.”
Though supportive of legalization, the resident made
sure to explain that she did not use marijuana recreationally
before her radiation. She said she had tried it only a few times
during college, but had never enjoyed it. Yet when faced with
drugs to cope with radiation, the marijuana provided the
most successful treatment.
“After the first time, I met with my doctor and told
him how I was queasy all the time, but pot had helped im-
mediately. He [said] that though other medications could
help, honestly pot worked the quickest and without bad side
effects like the meds I was given at first.”
Many patients who have suffered nausea due to medicine
or a treatment smoke marijuana to revitalize their appetite.
Others use the drugs as a muscle relaxant or to deal with
chronic joint pain.
For patients that require this kind of relief, the planned
dispensary would be a great victory in legitimizing their con-
cerns and providing them with a reliable source of marijuana.
Though revisions on the amendment are still in discussion,
Rhode Island has certainly taken a large step forward by
being the first state to expand a previously existing medical
marijuana bill to allow for a state-run facility.
LILLIAN MATHEWS B'12 knows some folks with
their own climate-controlled bedrooms, if you know what
she means.