Marijuana regulation a source of legal drama in New England

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As northeast states grapple with new complexities of marijuana regulation, legal challenges swirl.

In Rhode Island, Gov. Gina Raimondo has sued the General Assembly in state Superior Court over legislative powers they enacted. The state budget enabled lawmakers to make all new cannabis-related regulations “subject to approval by the General Assembly prior to enactment.”

Raimondo objected to the provision but still signed the spending plan. Medical marijuana has been legal in Rhode Island since 2006 but the state has yet to approve recreational use.

Across the Massachusetts line, a grand jury convened by U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling in the aftermath of a scandal involving Fall River’s mayor is investigating contracts between Massachusetts municipalities and the marijuana companies they licensed.

Meanwhile, the FBI has released an audio clip asking for public help investigating any possible public corruption, adding that some states are charging up to $500,000 for dispensary licenses.

Speaking to reporters late last month, Raimondo said state licenses for dispensaries — so-called compassion centers — will be chosen through a lottery system. She doesn’t want a repeat of the scenario in Fall River, where Lelling’s office charged Mayor Jasiel Correia II In September with pressuring four marijuana businesses to pay $575,000 in cash bribes in exchange for city approval.

Correia, 27, has pleaded not guilty. He ended his re-election campaign, ceded mayoral powers to City Council president Cliff Ponte and will end his term on Jan. 1.

“Gov. Raimondo’s legal challenge to the Rhode Island legislature’s action is not only courageous, it is constitutionally correct and morally right,” said Anthony Sabino, a Mineola, New York, defense attorney and St. John's University law professor.

“For too long, Rhode Island, one of the original 13 states, has had it wrong, and paid the price with corruption and ineffective government.”

According to Sabino, the model Raimondo is defending mirrors federal rulemaking, which he said called for “rational regulation” and ample opportunity for debate and public input.

House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello has since backed off, with a spokesman saying he intends to sponsor a bill in January, when lawmakers return, to eliminate the need for legislative approval.

In addition, media reports circulated that Mattiello’s deputy chief of staff, Grant Pilkington, is a shareholder in American Standard Hemp, whose principals include two registered State House lobbyists.

The state’s Republican Party is making a series of requests for public information seeking evidence on Pilkington’s potential violation of the ethics code.

“It is concerning to learn that a top staffer of Speaker Mattiello has gone into business with state house lobbyists in an industry that is highly regulated by state lawmakers,” state GOP chairwoman Sue Cienki said.

The Boston Globe reported Monday that at least six Massachusetts communities — Great Barrington, Eastham, Leicester, Newton, Northampton, and Uxbridge — confirmed they have received subpoenas from Lelling’s office seeking information about “host community” agreements.

Governors and other top officials from several Northeast states discussed recreational marijuana and vaping at a summit in New York three weeks ago. New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Massachusetts agreed to a series of principles to setting a cannabis tax structure, as well as best practices.

“Regional coordination makes sense,” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said. “Why? Because we do not want someone driving from New York to Connecticut or from New Jersey to New York to buy marijuana, and then drive back and then possibly be using it in the car.

“Policies governing vaping products and recreational marijuana will require regional symmetry because it makes little sense for one state to do something if a neighboring state has a totally different policy."

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Marijuana industry Lawsuits Gina Raimondo State of Rhode Island Commonwealth of Massachusetts Rhode Island Massachusetts