WOONSOCKET – Woonsocket’s partially vacant shopping plazas have seen significant interest from medical-related businesses in recent years, and now a new type of medical offering is expected to open its doors on Diamond Hill Road.
Dr. Paul Isikwe, a pharmaceutical industry professional and president of the newly formed RMI Compassion Center, plans to open a medical marijuana dispensary in Walnut Hill Plaza. RMI Compassion Center won its license to operate during a state lottery held last Friday, Oct. 29.
Isikwe, who lives in Providence, told The Breeze he has limited experience in Woonsocket but was attracted to the idea of opening a dispensary in the city due to the area’s reputation as a health care center with the presence of CVS Health. Woonsocket, he said, is something of a “dead spot” for medical marijuana access, as the closest state-licensed compassion center is located in Providence.
“It’s not far, but it’s not close,” he said. “They’re patients, and if they need access to their medicinal marijuana, I think proximity is key.”
RMI Compassion Center submitted its application to the Rhode Island Department of Business Regulation last July in accordance with state licensing procedures. Last Friday, state officials selected five new medical marijuana dispensaries to open in zones throughout the state using a random lottery featuring the qualified applicants. Woonsocket is located in Zone 1, which also includes North Smithfield, Burrillville, Cumberland, Glocester and Smithfield.
The lottery selection involved a blindfolded Russell Griffiths, a former FBI agent and Department of Business Regulation staff member, pulling a numbered ball from a tumbler borrowed from Twin River Casino for each of the five zones.
“My initial reaction, I was kind of speechless,” said Isikwe, who was in the room when his group was selected.
RMI Compassion Center, which is officially registered as a nonprofit corporation, is set to open in Suite #6 of Walnut Hill Plaza, a unit that was previously home to Payless ShoeSource. Isikwe said he expects to open the dispensary within the next nine months, the same time frame laid out by the Department of Business Regulation in the requirements for qualified applicants.
According to the application, RMI Compassion Center will operate Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. and Saturdays and Sundays from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Isikwe also highlighted the plaza’s good lighting and available parking as reasons for locating his dispensary there.
RMI Compassion Center is not the first group to express interest in opening a medical marijuana dispensary in Woonsocket. In 2019, Edward Roy, a former city police officer and director of security for Warwick-based Medici Products and Solutions, approached city officials about opening a dispensary in the former Milford Federal Savings and Loan Association building on Diamond Hill Road. Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt said at the time at least one other business had also spoken to city officials about establishing a dispensary.
In total, five organizations, including Medici, participated in the lottery to open a dispensary in Zone 1, but only RMI Compassion Center was selected to receive a license.
Isikwe said he has not yet interacted with city officials and plans to spend the next nine months going through the municipal permitting process. As with all medical marijuana dispensaries in the city, he said, the facility will require a special use permit from the city Zoning Board. Woonsocket’s zoning code allows medical marijuana dispensaries but only in certain areas of the city, a restriction he said further steered him toward Walnut Hill Plaza.
Isikwe, who currently works on the Value, Evidence and Outcomes team at Cambridge, Mass.-based Teva Pharmaceuticals, said the opening of more medical marijuana dispensaries will help improve the quality of life for patients using it as a treatment. He said he hopes to use his healthcare background to expand access for patients.
“Medical marijuana has been around a while. Obviously, it’s established in three different locations (in Rhode Island). The fact that Woonsocket now will be one of the eight locations that have it, I think it’s a benefit to the patients because it expands their access to these stores,” he said.
Dispensaries in Foster and Central Falls were also among those selected for a license last week. The state delayed selecting a license recipient in Zone 6, which includes Pawtucket and East Providence among other communities, due to an ongoing appeal of one of the applications.
Note: This story has been updated to reflect Dr. Paul Isikwe's role as a member of the Value, Evidence and Outcomes team at Teva Pharmaceuticals. A previous version of the story listed him as a medical outcomes liaison, which was his title at the time of submitting an application to the Department of Business Regulation.