U.S. Attorney Peter F. Neronha speaks with members of the Woonsocket Call and Pawtucket Times editorial staff in Woonsocket Thursday afternoon. Photo/Ernest A. Brown
WOONSOCKET â€“ Sometimes painted as the Molly Hatchet of the Rhode Island medical marijuana movement, putting the axe to the stateâ€™s three proposed compassion centers before they had a chance to open, U.S. Attorney Peter Neronha says he just wants to make sure everyone knows where his office stands on the issue so there will be â€śno surprisesâ€ť when, and if, a dispensary opens up.
Gov. Lincoln Chafee put the licensing of three compassion centers that had gone through two lengthy Department of Health application processes on hold after receiving a letter from Neronha saying the centers could be subject to raids and their employees subject to prosecution.
Now lawmakers, working with Chafee, have reworked compassion center legislation but Neronha said nobody has discussed the proposed measure with him. He is making no promises about the acceptability of the new plan.
â€śWe donâ€™t have an issue with individuals who are sick, cancer patients who are really truly sick, and we donâ€™t have an issue with their individual caregivers,â€ť Neronha explained on a recent visit to The Call office. â€śWhat the department does take issue with are commercial, large-scale marijuana enterprises and certainly the three dispensaries proposed in Rhode Island were, in my view, large-scale, commercial, for-profit enterprises. Nothing in this legislation has changed.â€ť
Citing the applications made by owners of one of the proposed facilities, the Summit Medical Compassion Center in Warwick, it would start by employing 45 people and that by its third year of operation it expected to have 80 people on staff plus 12 security guards. Although the operation would be required to be non-profit, it expected to lose $844,000 in the first year but by the second year would take in $13 million, $7.8 million of that above expenses. There were even rosier projections for the third year: $23.4 in revenue, $16.5 beyond what its owners expected to spend.
By the third year, the developers anticipated having about 8,000 patients under their care, which, under the law, would have allowed them to grow 96,000 marijuana plants.
â€śI can not ignore a 96,000 plant facility,â€ť Neronha said. â€śThatâ€™s not a small, individual, non-profit grow. That is an industrial grow facility.
â€śThe issue for us is not if it is legal or illegal, it is clearly illegal under federal law,â€ť he said. â€śThe question is, how should we use our federal resources? Weâ€™re not going to use them on the ill patient who has cancer and believes that this is helping. But we are definitely going to use them on 96,000-plant grows. Things of this magnitude can not go unnoticed.â€ť
Neronha likened it to a police officer who sees a car go by at 65 or 70 m.p.h. when the speed limit is 55, and might let it go. But when the next car goes by at 105 m.p.h., â€śthe lights are going to go on and it is going to get pulled over.â€ť
So how much marijuana is too much for a U.S. Attorney to abide?
Neronha wonâ€™t say.
â€śYou are asking me to say, for something that is illegal, how illegal does it have to be. Iâ€™m not comfortable answering that question,â€ť was his answer. â€śWhile I understand the question, and I understand why people want to know, I canâ€™t answer the question.â€ť
The problem is, medical marijuana patients make the point that they are using the drug as medicine and therefore need a reliable, year-long supply. If a patient must rely on an individual caregiver to supply his or her medicine and that person is hit with an extended power outage or some other problem, such as insects, that can ruin an entire crop, the patient may be forced to go several months without medicine. That is one of the reasons that the patients championed the compassion center concept.
But Neronha balked at the idea of helping craft acceptable legislation.
â€śLast year, looking at it objectively and fairly, my position probably caught some people unawares,â€ť he acknowledged. â€śIâ€™m not sure why it did, but I can see why it might have.
â€śWhat concerns me this time around is that when I read in the press that there has been a compromise, Iâ€™m not a party to that compromise. Nobody reached out to me and asked me. Iâ€™m certainly not going to go up and testify about state legislation. Department policy doesnâ€™t allow me to do it and it is not something I am going to do. Certainly, if someone were to ask me specifically what my thoughts are, I would tell them. But it is really not the job of a federal prosecutor to weigh in on state policy except to remind people of what federal law is and what the options are. I want to make sure going into this process that there isnâ€™t any confusion to what our position is. I just donâ€™t want anybody to be surprised if we take action should these things open.â€ť
Neronha suggested that the presence of medical marijuana dispensaries tend to greatly increase the number of patients who find a need for them. He cited Montana as an example, saying its population of right around 1 million people is similar to Rhode Islandâ€™s. When dispensaries opened in that state, he said, the number of medical marijuana cardholders exploded from 3,000 to 30,000. The Montana legislature eventually repealed the dispensary law.
Pointing to a statistic that there are 42 medical marijuana cardholders for every 100,000 Rhode Islanders without the compassion centers while Maine, which does have the facilities operating has only 20 cardholders per 100,000 â€“ that tells me there is an appetite for marijuana that does not exist in Maine.â€ť
â€śOnce the cork is out of the bottle, it is very hard to put it back in,â€ť Neronha said. â€śThat is my concern; that it is going to be very hard to undo the damage once it happens. And I have to tell you, if there is damage, it wonâ€™t be damage that the federal government will be dealing with.
â€śIf there is an explosion of marijuana use as a result of these dispensaries, which I think there is every indication that there will be, by that I mean improper use of it â€“ people driving under the influence of marijuana, the marijuana found in schools, the marijuana being used by people who shouldnâ€™t be using it, those are not going to be federal enforcement problems, those are going to be state and local problems. I feel it is important with respect to these dispensaries that we make our views clear in advance to what the possibilities are. Weâ€™ll have to wait and see if they do open as to what our response will be.â€ť