Pubdate: Wed, 06 Apr 2016
Source: Pawtucket Times (RI)
Copyright: 2016 The Pawtucket Times
Author: Russ Olivo

At Marijuana Legalization Forum, R.I. Officials Are Advised To...


PROVIDENCE - Amid signs that the political climate for legalizing 
marijuana is growing increasingly friendly, officials in charge of 
the new regulatory machinery in Colorado and Washington State have 
some cautionary words of advice: Look before you leap.

Marley Bardovsky, the assistant director of prosecution for the 
Denver City Attorney's Office, and Darwin Roberts, deputy attorney 
general for Washington State, were among a panel of experts who spoke 
Tuesday at a forum on legalization at the Brown University Medical Center.

Since they became the first states in the nation to legalize 
marijuana in 2012, the prosecutors say they've been grappling with a 
litany of regulatory issues - everything from a rise in car accidents 
by impaired drivers and the increased use of marijuana among children 
to explosions at hash oil processing facilities and the unlawful 
exportation of weed to other states.

"Get your regulations in order," counseled Bardovsky. "The longer you 
go with no regulation, the more problems you're going to have down the road."

The panelists were rounded up by Attorney General Peter F. Kilmartin, 
with help from the Taubman Center for American Politics and Policy at 
Brown University and the Conference of Western Attorneys General. 
Other speakers were Todd Mitchem, a business consultant from the 
Coalition for Responsible Cannabis Production; Adam Darnell, 
researcher with the Washington State Institute of Public Policy; 
Massachusetts State Sen. Jason Lewis; and James Morone, director of 
the Taubman Center.

Kilmartin said he arranged the forum to promote an informed public 
conversation about legalizing marijuana - from which he thinks some 
important components have so far been overlooked.

"I think the discussion has been lacking overall... it isn't just 
necessarily, 'Let's get the revenue and everything's going to be 
okay.' There are significant social and legal consequences."

The forum drew about 75 spectators, including representatives of law 
enforcement from around New England. Among those in attendance were 
Central Falls Police Chief James Mendonca and Acting Woonsocket 
Police Chief Michael Lemoine.

"I don't necessarily agree with it," Lemoine said, but he thinks the 
writing is on the wall for the future of legalization. It's not so 
much a question of if, he says, but when. "Let's learn from Colorado 
and Washington State before Rhode Island walks down the path of 
eventual legalization," he said.

Medical marijuana has been legal in Rhode Island since 2006 and 
possession of up to an ounce has been decriminalized since 2013, 
though scofflaws are still subject to civil fines. Recently, however, 
Gov. Gina Raimondo said she might get behind a proposal to put 
legalization up for a statewide referendum this year, and House 
Speaker Nicholas Matiello has made similar remarks.

Bills calling for legalization have been introduced into the General 
Assembly for several years in a row, including this one.

While Colorado and Washington State were the pioneers of recreational 
legalization, they're now among four states and the District of 
Columbia where recreational marijuana is legal, including Alaska and Oregon.

One of the most frequently heard justifications for legalizing 
marijuana is that it's a reasonable strategy for wiping out the black 
market, but neither Colorado nor Washington State see much evidence 
of that, the panelists reported.

Cultivated marijuana in Colorado isn't supposed to leave the state, 
but it turns up in an assortment of far-flung locales and is openly 
advertised for sale on Craigslist, according to Bardovsky. The 
high-potency weed grown by the state's savvy indoor pot farmers 
fetches anywhere from $2,000 to $5,500 a pound and her office employs 
of team of detectives who spend a good deal of their time tracking 
down the illicit sales.

"We still have people hiding in plain sight growing marijuana and 
shipping it out of state," said Bardovsky. "The black market is still alive."

Some of the outlaws are highly sophisticated smuggling organizations. 
In 2015, prosecutors indicted 34 people in Operation Golden Gofer for 
exporting Colorado homegrown to Minnesota, using a fleet of 20 
vehicles, including a couple of airplanes.

But Roberts said the prospects for drying up the black market in his 
state seem more hopeful, as the price appears to be falling. Still, 
he said, Washington State weed has turned up in nearly every state in 
the country since legalization.

Some of the consequences of legalizing marijuana may have been more 
foreseeable than others, but one big one apparently caught regulators 
completely off-guard. At one point Colorado shut down its largest 
licensed grower  with 65,000 plants in cultivation  after its testing 
authority detected levels of agricultural chemicals in its finished 
product the state considered a public health threat.

Roberts called the use of pesticides "a sort of late-breaking issue" 
that appears to be growing increasingly problematic. He says 
marijuana is like any other crop, albeit a highly lucrative one that 
gives growers extra incentive to cut corners if a mold or disease 
threatens the harvest.

Mitchem, the business consultant, said that neither growers nor 
regulators should underestimate the power consumers are likely to 
exert in an open market for marijuana. He says, "They want it to be 
clean. They want it to be pesticide-free."

For all the shady operators bent on cheating the system in newly 
state-run marijuana markets, Mitchem told the audience there are 
responsible interests whose priority is working collaboratively with 
law enforcement to develop cultivation and distribution networks that 
function in everyone's best interests.

"We're setting a new tone," he said. "When we are unrolling cannabis, 
we're not advocating for doing it bigger and faster. We're saying, 
'Let's do it right.'"

Perhaps the most graphic example of how sideways things can go came 
when Bardovsky focused on the production of a refined marijuana 
product known as hash oil, a process that involves a highly flammable 
solvent once known mainly for fueling cigarette lighters - butane. 
Colorado licenses a number of facilities that process hash oil from 
raw marijuana, but there has also been a proliferation of illicit 
laboratories where appropriate safety guidelines are not observed.

If the problem sounds familiar, that's because U.S. Attorney Peter 
Neronha announced the arrests of several individuals in Rhode Island 
last week on charges of running illegal hash oil processing 
facilities, including two men whose operation was exposed after they 
allegedly caused an explosion at their apartment complex in Westerly. 
Bardovsky said over 30 hash oil explosions have rocked Colorado, 
resulting in multiple injuries and extensive property damage.

She shared footage of several incidents captured on security cameras 
at the facilities where they took place. In one moment, everything 
seemed normal; the next, people were blown aside in a blinding flash 
of expanding light.

Jared Moffat, director of Regulate Rhode Island  a leading 
pro-legalization lobby  was not among the panelists, but he issued a 
statement later that criticized the forum for promoting an agenda.

"Unfortunately the discussion was fairly one-sided," he said. "There 
was little mention of the positive impacts we've seen in Colorado and 
Washington: millions in tax revenue being used to build schools and 
fund health programs; many thousands of new jobs; and a drastic 
reduction of the illicit marijuana market."

Moffat said "virtually all of the dire predictions from opponents of 
marijuana regulation have not materialized, and the sky has not 
fallen in Colorado or Washington."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom