Rhode Island’s top marijuana regulator was quizzed about a range of cannabis-related topics during a local TV news interview last week, including preparations to issue new retail licenses, the availability of hemp-derived cannabinoids and an error in state-reported sales data that was identified by Marijuana Moment.
Cannabis Control Commission Chair Kimberly Ahern appeared on WPRI-TV’s “Newsmakers” on Friday, emphasizing that regulators are working to take a measured approach to stewarding the state’s adult-use market, which opened for sales through existing medical marijuana dispensaries in December of last year.
Ahern called the coming round of licensing, under which the state is expected to issue 24 new adult-use retail licenses “one of the most important decisions the commission has to make in the coming months and year.” Currently only nine medical dispensaries are licensed statewide.
“We can’t issue licenses until we get the playbook right,” she insisted, noting the need for “a fair set of rules” grounded in state law and “a thoughtful and deliberate process to understand what other states have done.”
“The goal would be to issue licenses in 2024 with the huge caveat that other states that have done this have taken several years,” Ahern said.
Co-host Tim White pointed out that the state’s 60 licensed cultivators “are growing more than can be sold” and would likely be disappointed that additional retail licensing isn’t happening faster. He suggested that Rhode Island’s system of marijuana regulation is a “bureaucratic morass.”
Ahern replied that many states, including nearby Massachusetts, took multiple years to get the market up and running.
“This is an area where for decades, it’s been illegal,” she said. “We’re moving a substance—in what I think in one of the greatest policy changes I’ve seen in my lifetime—into a regulated space. And so I do think we need government oversight.”
Asked by “Newsmakers” co-host Ted Nesi about a Marijuana Moment report that found discrepancies in state-reported cannabis sales data going back to December 2022, Ahern said she was “aware of the article, and I’ve spoken directly to the staff,” although she noted that it’s the Office of Cannabis Regulation (OCR)—not the Cannabis Control Commission, which she chairs—that reports those numbers.
“It’s my understanding that none of that changed the top line many people are most interested in, which is total sales and adult use, which since December of last year has consistently ticked up,” she said.
In fact, the differences in reported total sales for any given month ranged from just a few cents to hundreds of thousands of dollars.
For March 2023, for example, the state had previously reported total sales of $8,741,428.95. The new number, updated after Marijuana Moment contacted OCR about discrepancies observed in the sales numbers, is $8,676,809.00—about $64,620 less.
April 2023 showed the largest total sales discrepancy of any month. The state previously reported $8,421,924.28 in total sales, which was updated to $8,640,019.00—an upward adjustment of more than $218,000.
On the adult-use side, meanwhile, adjustments ranged from less than a dollar in some months to about $376,196 higher for January 2023 and $261,968 higher for April 2023.
The total amount of adult-use cannabis sold since December 2022 also changed—rising from 55,288,592.97 up to $55,882,576.00—a difference of nearly $594,000.
“I think the Office of Cannabis Regulation realized their mistake and corrected it quickly and is trying to share with the public what they changed and what to expect going forward,” Ahern said in the WPRI interview.
She added that in December 2022, when adult-use sales began, the state rolled out its first seed-to-sale tracking system, which is contracted through the company Metrc.
“Before that, it was all paper-based,” she said. Now, “the cultivators, the retailers are directly connected to the Office of Cannabis Regulation through some, you know, technical program. And what that does is they can report monthly on their data. But it’s dynamic, and so depending on when the Office of Cannabis Regulation pulls that data, it can be updated by the vendor—by, you know, someone auditing or someone fixing, you know, going back, double checking numbers. And so there’s kind of an element of change there that will naturally happen.”
Asked about the possibility that the federal government could downgrade marijuana from Schedule I to Schedule III of the Controlled Substances Act, Ahern called it “a step in the right direction.”
“I think it would lower the temperature” with respect to conflict between state and federal law, she said, noting that “it opens up mostly avenues for banking.”
Broadening access to banking services for marijuana businesses would be a win for public safety, Ahern explained. “Early on in this regulated space, we saw a number of issues with break-ins, with burglaries, and that made sense, because it’s a cash-based business,” she said. “So I think federal regulation can only increase safety both from a banking and also from a testing and health perspective.”
WPRI’s White said the station was recently able to purchase unregulated edible products online hemp-derived that third-party testing showed contained 70 milligrams of delta-9 THC. Ahern encouraged consumers to buy from regulated marijuana stores.
“Buy from one of our small businesses, where you know where it’s grown, you know how it got there and you know it’s been tested for potency, for microbes, for heavy toxins, for metals, for all these things,” she said, “and you know regulated cannabis is going to be safe cannabis.”
The body Ahern chairs met for the first time in June—about a year behind schedule—and this summer it embarked on a listening tour across the state in an effort to hear from stakeholders, including members of the cannabis industry, medical patients, consumers and others. The need for social equity in the industry was a top concern raised by participants.
Meanwhile in Rhode Island, the governor and leaders of the House and Senate announced their appointments to the state’s Cannabis Advisory Board in August. The 19-member panel works with the Cannabis Control Commission to issue recommendations.
Additionally, some workers in the marijuana industry have been pushing to unionize.
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