Medical marijuana cultivation makes headway in Woonsocket

Medical marijuana cultivation makes headway in Woonsocket

WOONSOCKET – Gerry Beyer, manager of the Nyanza Mill at 159 Singleton St., has been trying to get the city to approve large-scale cultivation of medical marijuana in the former textile mill complex since last September.

For months, talks with city officials seemed to go nowhere, with city councilors citing the lack of a formal recommendation from the administration as a reason to hold off on discussion of an ordinance amendment that would legalize medical marijuana cultivation in the city.

Now, more than six months after discussions began, plans seem to be taking shape. On Tuesday, city councilors met with City Planning Director Joel Mathews, Solicitor John DeSimone and Public Safety Director Eugene Jalette to discuss the creation of a new ordinance that would, under certain conditions, provide a path forward for large-scale medical marijuana cultivation.

While efforts so far have focused on amending an existing ordinance regulating indoor farming to allow for medical marijuana cultivation, Mathews told city councilors that a better approach would be to create a new ordinance that would regulate the industry.

“I have reviewed our ordinance and I have viewed what other cities and towns have done, and I think if you want to proceed with the ordinance, you have to proceed from scratch,” he said.

Mathews also recommended that the city limit cultivation to existing mill buildings located within industrial zones and create two subcommittees to study the issue, one dedicated to crafting an ordinance on zoning and the other to address licensing and fees.

“This has to be a damn good ordinance for it to work. It needs to be, or it’s going to be a disaster,” he told council members.

In 2016, Woonsocket amended its zoning ordinance to ban medical marijuana cultivation within city limits. However, under state law, medical marijuana patients and licensed caregivers may grow up to 12, 24 or 48 plants, depending on licensing, in a residential or nonresidential setting for medical use. While the law states growers must abide by local zoning ordinances, according to information gathered by the Department of Business Regulation and shared by Councilor Richard Fagnant with fellow members, as many as 80 “home growers” currently grow medical marijuana in private facilities and homes in Woonsocket.

In more recent years, growing demand for medical marijuana, and its regulation, led to a new state law allowing large-scale licensed cultivators to grow up to 500 plants for sale to one of three medical marijuana dispensaries in the state. Fagnant pointed out to fellow councilors that several other communities already allow these cultivators to operate, with many more under consideration at the state level.

“There’s no ground floor anymore. We’re hours and years and days and months behind,” he said.

While city officials seemed uncertain as to whether the current zoning ordinance was enforceable under state law, Jalette confirmed that small-scale growers continue to operate with little oversight in the city.

“In my experience, when I was in the drug squad, we would have raids on these houses, there would be 12 plants, and there wasn’t much more we could do unless there were (more) plants,” he said.

Several councilors suggested that opening up city ordinances to large-scale cultivation might allow for greater oversight of the industry and in turn allow the city to crack down on home growers who could more easily abuse state law. DeSimone confirmed that on the state level, cultivation policy is shifting away from home growing in favor of larger facilities that provide marijuana to state-regulated dispensaries.

“Now, the state’s going to turn away from that and create centers, and that’s what we’re doing right now,” he said. “We’re at the cusp where we could probably create a piece of legislation to appeal to the big growers.”

While the meeting included much discussion of how to regulate the growth of the marijuana industry in the city, plans for large-scale cultivation are far from complete. Any proposed ordinance would have to go before the City Council during a public hearing, and residents showed their divided views during the citizens good and welfare segment of Monday’s council meeting. Those opposed to cultivation expressed concerns about regulation, public health and legality under federal law, while those in favor cited potential revenue to the city and the inevitability of the industry’s growth across the state.

“You might solve the problem of a few tax dollars increase, but you create many more that you might not be able to solve,” said Dennis Desaulniers.

For now, plans to legalize medical marijuana move forward in the preliminary stages, with Council President Daniel Gendron suggesting the formation of a three-person subcommittee that includes Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt.

“I think we know that we need a stricter and more rigid framework if we’re going to go forward with this,” he said.

Beyer, meanwhile, says he’s already had three potential cultivators visit the space and that his 60,000-square-foot facility is ready. He anticipates that recreational marijuana will become legal statewide within the next several years, at which point he says facilities like his will be in high demand.

“We’re making progress. I’m not going away,” he said.

Comments

If CVS wanted to build a drug manufacturing facility in the city, wouldn't have been passed by now? Do you know how many people die from the perscription drugs every year? Thousands
Do you know how many people died from Cannabis every year? NONE
Its time to get educated about the topic.