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Assault weapons ban has stalled in past General Assembly sessions

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — A proposed ban on so-called ‘assault weapons’ introduced in the Rhode Island General Assembly Tuesday is the latest attempt at a policy that has failed to pass in recent years.

The sponsors of the bill hope a fresh attempt at outlawing certain semiautomatic rifles will stick, as politicians and community activists work to change gun policy in the wake of the latest deadly school shooting in Parkland, Florida.

“This is not a new battle for me,” said Sen. Josh Miller, D-Cranston, the lead sponsor of the bill in the Senate. “I think I’ve had a gun bill of one sort or another, including an assault weapons ban, since I was first elected.”

The legislation, sponsored on the House side by Rep. Jason Knight, would “restrict the possession and sale of semiautomatic weapons, limit ammunition magazines to ten or less rounds, and would make provisions for ‘grandfathered’ ownership of semiautomatic assault weapons,” according to a summary of the 11-page bill.

The semiautomatic rifles, commonly known as assault weapons, were once banned by the federal government, but the prohibition lapsed in 2004 and rifles like the AR-15 flooded the market. The AR-style rifles have been the weapon of choice for many mass shooters, including the most recent gunman at a high school in Parkland, Florida.

Since the weapons were legalized, some states—including Massachusetts—have chosen to ban the guns on their own. But multiple attempts in Rhode Island have been unsuccessful.

According to State House spokesperson Larry Berman, the most recent attempt at an assault weapons ban was in the Senate in 2015. Similar bills were introduced in both the House and Senate in 2014 and 2013, all of which were “held for further study,” languishing in committee without a vote.

Miller hopes 2018 will be different.

“This is a different era with a different group of partners, and I’m really glad to have them,” he said at a rally for a number of gun control bills at the State House Tuesday.

“Enough was enough, even before Florida,” he told the crowd.

House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, who is sponsoring another gun bill related to “red flags,” is not sold on the assault weapons ban.

“I, myself, would have to be convinced that that’s actually going to help people,” Mattiello said in an interview last week.

He said he believes removing guns from people with behavioral health issues would be more effective than banning certain styles of weapons.

Senate President Dominick Ruggerio has not taken a stance on the assault weapons ban. Spokesperson Greg Pare said he needed time to review the language of the bill.

Ruggerio is also supporting the red flag bill, which would create a new tool for courts to take guns away from people who are deemed at risk to commit violence.

“I think most Rhode Islanders agree that we should balance constitutional rights with the need to keep firearms out of the hands of dangerous individuals,” Ruggerio said in a statement Tuesday.

Both Mattiello and Ruggerio received A+ ratings from the National Rifle Association in 2016.

In addition to the assault weapons ban and the red flag bill, Rhode Island lawmakers will also consider a ban on bump stocks and an a bill to raise the age to own a rifle to 21.

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Raimondo signs ‘red flag’ policy aimed at disarming dangerous people

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WARWICK, R.I. (WPRI) — Gov. Gina Raimondo has signed an executive order establishing a statewide “red flag” policy, ordering police to “take all available legal steps” to remove guns from dangerous individuals.

The executive order is more narrow than a proposed red flag bill in the General Assembly, also supported by Raimondo, which would create a new “extreme risk protective order” and give the courts power to take guns away from possibly violent people for a year.

Raimondo, a Democrat, said the deadly mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida, on Feb. 14 increased the urgency for the policy to be implemented immediately.

”We cannot wait a minute longer for Washington to take action to prevent gun violence,” Raimondo said, adding that she has lowered the flags to half-mast nine times for mass shootings since becoming governor.

The executive order directs the Rhode Island State Police to investigate any reports of red flags, including threats, posts on social media, recent acquisition of firearms or suspicious statements. After an investigation, which would include speaking to the person, police could remove firearms from the person’s home using existing law or ask them to surrender their firearms.

PDF: Read the executive order in full »

Raimondo emphasized that new legislation is required to give police additional powers to disarm individuals, which the executive order does not do. Existing law prohibits gun possession by convicted felons, convicted domestic abusers (including for misdemeanors), people who have been adjudicated as a danger to themselves and others due to mental illness, and people subject to a domestic abuse restraining order.

The executive order also calls for police to refer the person to a mental health facility and initiate criminal proceedings if appropriate.

“We have no doubt that having a Red Flag Law in Rhode Island will help us keep guns out of the hands of people when they are desperate and/or dangerous,” State Police Col. Ann Assumpico said in a statement. “In addition, we hope that away the opportunity to use a gun will prevent these individuals with a new opportunity — to seek the help and treatment they need.”

The executive order tees up broader legislation introduced in the General Assembly to give courts the power to remove guns from a person who has been deemed by a judge to be dangerous. The bill, introduced in the House Friday and scheduled to be introduced in the Senate Tuesday, would create the new protective order for people in danger of committing violence.

“This is not about taking guns away from people who are law-abiding citizens,” Raimondo said. “This is about keeping Rhode Islanders safe.”

The House bill would allow police, the attorney general’s office or family/household members to petition for the protective order. A hearing would be held within 21 days to determine if the person is indeed dangerous, and the guns would need to be surrendered to police if the order is put in place. The bill would also allow for a temporary protective order from owning guns while awaiting the hearing.

House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, a Democrat who has been backed by the NRA, has signed on as a co-sponsor to the legislation.

“I believe that the Second Amendment’s an important constitutional right,” Mattiello said Friday. “However, kids are being shot in school. So that gives you pause, and it makes you think about it and you have to try and find the most effective ways of dealing with it.”

After the executive order was signed Monday, Mattiello said in a statement: “I was proud to co-sponsor the Red Flag proposal and it will be given a hearing in the House Judiciary Committee in the near future. It is positive that the Governor is placing attention on the Red Flag issue, but the law need to be changed by the General Assembly so law enforcement has the tools to take firearms away from individuals who pose a danger to themselves and the public.”

The Senate version is being introduced by Majority Whip Maryellen Goodwin, the chamber’s No. 3 Democrat.

Mike Stenhouse, the CEO of the conservative RI Center for Freedom and Prosperity, said his group supports red flag policies in general, but accused Raimondo of “trying to exploit recent events to advance an extreme political agenda,” and expressed concerns about due process rights for gun owners.

”While the Center supports the ‘red flag’ concept, it urges the General Assembly lawmakers to ensure that any new laws include adequate civil rights protections, with a high bar clearly set, and due process assured, before anyone’s constitutional rights are nullified or anyone’s property is seized,” Stenhouse said.”

“There’s no real opportunity for the person to advocate for themselves,” added Justin Katz, the research director for the center. “They are instantly on the defense. It’s up to a single judge to determine that they can take this person’s guns away.”

Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, who is running for the GOP gubernatorial nomination to challenge Raimondo, said he could support the red flag bill if due process rights are respected.

“There has to be some kind of trained medical professional involved in that process that provides the opinion, that solidifies the opinion and the observations,” Fung said in an interview with Eyewitness News.

The National Rifle Association has not responded to repeated requests for comment on the legislation.

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Mattiello co-sponsors ‘red flag’ gun bill; Raimondo to sign executive order

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) —  A bill to take firearms away from people deemed at risk for violence has the support of House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, a Democrat who was endorsed by the National Rifle Association in 2016.

The bill was introduced Friday by Rep. Dennis Canario and co-sponsored by other representatives, including Mattiello. Gov. Gina Raimondo also announced Friday she would sign an executive order on Monday to institute the so-called “red flag” policy on a temporary basis while lawmakers debate the policy in the General Assembly.

“The tragedy in Parkland has renewed the urgency once again for states to take action to prevent gun violence,” Raimondo said in a statement. “On Monday I will sign an Executive Order establishing a statewide red flag policy that will take effect immediately, but we still need to pass legislation so these protections are in place permanently.”

The bill was recommended by the Rhode Island Police Chiefs’ Association, whose executive director said police are often told about a person’s concerning behavior, but can’t do anything until a crime is actually committed.

Mattiello said in an interview Friday he believes the legislation could have prevented the school shooting in Parkland, Florida last week.

“I believe that the Second Amendment’s an important constitutional right,” Mattiello said. “However, kids are being shot in schools. So that gives you pause, and makes you think about it and you have to try and find the most effective ways of dealing with it.”

“It easily could have helped avert that tragedy,” Mattiello added.

The bill would create an “extreme risk protective order,” which a court could impose on a person who “is an imminent danger to cause personal injury to self or others by having access to a firearm.”

A family member, household member, police or the attorney general’s office would be able to petition the Superior Court for the extreme risk protective order. A hearing would be held on the matter within 21 days, but a temporary order could be put in place while awaiting the hearing.

If a judge certifies the order, the person would need to surrender his or her guns for a year. The court could extend the order after that, and the person would have a chance every year to petition to get his or her firearms back.

“I think it would be a real, practical way to protect our children,” Mattiello said.

People convicted of certain crimes are banned by federal law from possessing firearms, but police have lamented their inability to remove guns from a person who exhibits red flags but has not yet committed a crime.

“What we see as a challenge is when we receive this information – very concerning information – there is really no tool in place for us to prevent those individuals from possessing a firearm or going out and obtaining a firearm,” Jamestown Police Chief Edward Mello told Eyewitness News on Thursday.

“This legislation is a way to stop tragedies before they happen,” said Sen. Maryellen Goodwin, D-Providence, who plans to introduce similar legislation in the Senate on Tuesday. “Of course someone who has guns and is making serious threats to harm people with them should not be armed.”

Prior to the Florida shooting, the National Rifle Association had opposed red flag legislation proposed in other states. The NRA did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Rhode Island’s red flag proposal.

The NRA has donated $3,675 to Mattiello’s campaigns since 2006, endorsed his most recent re-election campaign and rated his stance on gun rights an A+. Asked if he was fine with potentially losing NRA support, Mattiello said he was more concerned about the public.

Frank Saccoccio from the Rhode Island 2nd Amendment Coalition said he thinks the idea for the red flag bill is a good one, but he would need to read through the specific language before taking a position.

Steven Brown, the executive director of the ACLU, said the Rhode Island chapter would be reviewing the legislation next week to determine if there are any civil rights issues.

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Common Cause: After Kettle situation, Senate and House should set process for expelling members

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — With the imminent and unprecedented expulsion of a sitting senator avoided Thursday by that senator’s resignation, a local watchdog group is urging Rhode Island lawmakers to come up with a set of rules for the process moving forward.

Senator Nicholas Kettle submitted a resignation letter Thursday amid criminal allegations of video voyeurism and extortion. Senate leaders had filed legislation to expel him on Wednesday, after calling for his resignation since his arrest late last week.

The Rhode Island constitution allows the Senate and House to expel members with a two-thirds majority, but the article has never been used in recorded state history.

“This situation could happen again,” said John Marion, the executive director of good-government group Common Cause Rhode Island. “They need to be prepared for the next time.”

The constitution is broad, giving each chamber the power to punish its own, and “with the concurrence of two-thirds, expel a member; but not a second time for the same cause.” The 175-year-old document is silent on how lawmakers should go about expelling a member, or what sort of behavior is worthy of the punishment.

Senate President Dominick Ruggerio first mentioned expulsion on Monday, after a grand jury indictment was unsealed charging Kettle with allegedly extorting a Senate page for sex back in 2011. On Wednesday, after Kettle had still not resigned, Senate leadership filed legislation to expel him from the chamber, setting a hearing on the matter for Tuesday. Kettle was told he would be able to defend himself.

“What we discovered is they were sort of making up the process as they went along,” Marion said in an interview Thursday. “It’s clear they hadn’t thought about how they were going to come to a conclusion about the standard that they have to apply.”

The legislation detailed a list of “bad behavior” including campaign finance violations, in addition to the criminal charges against Kettle. Other lawmakers in the House are currently subject to campaign finance violations, Marion mentioned, and have not been punished by their chamber.

Marion said other state legislatures have a special committee to investigate alleged misconduct and produce a public report recommending for or against expelling a member.

“If you have a good process, a transparent process in place, then people aren’t going to raise those questions like they did this time.”

Some of those questions came from the ACLU of Rhode Island, which sent a letter to Ruggerio on Tuesday expressing alarm about the apparent speed in which leadership was considering expulsion.

“As serious as the criminal charges are, so too is the act of expelling a democratically elected legislator from the seat he earned from the voters of his district,” executive director Steven Brown wrote in the letter.

Lawmakers expressed concerns about the safety of the current student pages as part of their explanation for the quick expulsion proceedings.

Ruggerio said Thursday Kettle’s decision to resign was “in the best interest of the Senate and the state.”

“I am grateful that Mr. Kettle has chosen a path that avoids requiring his colleagues to consider expulsion,” Ruggerio said in a statement.

Kettle has denied the charges against him, and his attorney Priscilla DiMaio said Thursday he was resigning in order to focus on his criminal defense, not because of the pending expulsion proceedings.

In his resignation letter, Kettle said: “I am extremely disappointed in Senate Leadership on both sides of the aisle because Mr. Algiere and Mr. Ruggerio do not appear to understand the importance of due process as a cornerstone of our legal system.”

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Calls mount for Sen. Kettle to resign amid criminal charges

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Democrats and Republicans alike are calling for the resignation of Senator Nicholas Kettle, a Republican from Coventry who is charged in two criminal cases including one involving alleged misconduct with a Senate page.

Senate President Dominick Ruggerio has threatened to hold a vote to expel Kettle if he doesn’t resign – a move that has led the ACLU to urge caution.

Kettle was charged Monday with two counts of extortion, after an unsealed secret grand jury indictment revealed accusations that he extorted a Senate page for sex back in 2011. The indictment said he threatened and attempted to compel the teenager to commit a sexual act.

“I am furious that Senator Kettle has not already resigned,” said Sen. Gayle Goldin, D-Providence. “If he does not do so, I will certainly vote in favor of his expulsion.”

“It’s beyond the pale,” said Sen. Jim Seveney, D-Portsmouth. “It’s just not to be tolerated.”

Republican Senate Minority Leader Dennis Algiere joined Ruggerio in calling for Kettle to resign, as did Republican Senator Thomas Paolino. The other two Republicans in the chamber, Mark Gee and Elaine Morgan, have not yet responded to requests for comment.

“If the allegations are true, those alone would require Senator Kettle to resign,” Paolino said.

The Coventry Town Republican Committee, which has about 30 members, also said it would vote to expel Kettle from its membership if he does not resign voluntarily.

“As a representative of Coventry and a constituent of the senator, I am deeply disappointed,” said GOP Rep. Bobby Nardolillo, who is also a candidate for U.S. Senate. “I feel strongly it’s in the best interests of Senate District 21 for Mr. Kettle to resign his position.”

Kettle declined to say if he would resign while leaving his court arraignment Monday.

The Senate is on break this week, but a spokesperson said a vote to expel the senator could be held as early as next week.

Eyewitness News reached out to each of the 36 sitting senators – Kettle is the 37th, and one seat is vacant – to ask how they would vote if expulsion is on the table. Twenty senators said they would vote “yes,” one senator said she was undecided, and 15 senators have not yet replied to inquiries. None of the senators who responded to Eyewitness News said they would vote against expulsion.

The Constitution requires a two-thirds majority vote to expel a senator. A spokesperson said the Senate’s legal counsel was determining the procedure, including whether Kettle would be included in the tally. If so, 25 senators would need to vote in favor of expulsion.

The ACLU of Rhode Island entered the conversation Tuesday, sending a letter to Ruggerio urging the leadership to take a slow approach to an expulsion vote.

“As serious as the criminal charges are, so too is the act of expelling a democratically elected legislator from the seat he earned from the voters of his district,” executive director Steven Brown wrote in the letter.

State Librarian Megan Hamlin-Black said her office could find no records of any Senate or House member being expelled from their chambers, although the state constitution clearly allows the practice. She said the R.I. State Archives also had no record of the expulsion article being used.

In an interview with Eyewitness News, Brown said the ACLU does not have a position on whether Kettle should be expelled, but they believe the Senate should adopt rules before using the provision for the first time.

“There may be a very principled reason why the Senate is acting now to try to initiate these expulsion proceedings.” Brown said. “But if you don’t have standards in place ahead of time, the door is open for all sorts of mischief down the road.”

He said examples of procedures that could be adopted include holding a hearing, presenting evidence and allowing a member to defend him or herself before a vote takes place.

Kettle was first arrested on Friday on the video voyeurism charge, in which state police allege he sent nude photos of his girlfriend to a friend without her consent. The grand jury indictment on the two extortion charges involving the former Senate page also came down on Friday. He pleaded not guilty to the extortion charges, and his attorneys claimed the allegations were part of a “political witch hunt,” because the young man later ran against Kettle for his Senate seat.

Ruggerio ordered a review of the page program in light of the allegations. The program employs students aged 15 and up to assist lawmakers with paperwork and other duties at the State House.

Caroline Goggin contributed to this report.

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RIDOT to install first truck-toll gantries this week

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Two years after Gov. Gina Raimondo signed her signature RhodeWorks bill into law, her administration will begin constructing toll gantries to collect cash from large commercial trucks that use Rhode Island’s highways.

The first two toll gantries will begin going up on Monday in Hopkinton and Exeter on I-95, according to the Rhode Island Department of Transportation. A number of lanes will be closed during the process, and there will be a brief overnight highway closure.

Fourteen total toll locations are planned, as part of the RhodeWorks law that passed in 2016. The 10-year road-and-bridge repair plan calls for collecting truck tolls to pay for the costs of rebuilding and rehabilitating the state’s crumbling infrastructure. Work on many of those projects has already begun.

RIDOT and Raimondo have argued that large tractor-trailer trucks do the most damage to Rhode Island roads, and therefore should contribute to fixing them. The trucking industry has fought back, consistently threatening to sue the state as soon as the first toll is collected.

“Everything up to this point has been conjecture and spin by RIDOT and Governor Raimondo,” said Chris Maxwell, the president of the RI Trucking Association, on Friday. “They now face their biggest challenge in a court of law and we’re ready to roll!!!”

“We have been prepared for three years for any challenges to this,” RIDOT Director Peter Alviti said. “We expect that we will succeed in defending any challenge.”

Alviti says the toll gantries that will go up next week will go through a month of testing before the automated system begins charging trucks that drive under them, either through an EZ Pass transponder or by billing the truck driver by their license plate.

The price for Toll 1 in Hopkinton and Toll 2 in Exeter will be $3.25 and $3.50, respectively. The rest of the tolls gantries are slated to go up gradually over the next 18 months.

Next week, daytime single-lane closures are scheduled on I-95 North and South Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the two tolling locations. The first location is one mile north of Exit 2, and the other is three miles south of Exit 5.

The highway will be temporarily fully closed from approximately 1-3 a.m. Thursday and Friday, while the installation of the actual gantries occurs. RIDOT says “rolling roadblocks” will be used, by lowering the speed limit to 25 mph.

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Child Advocate: DCYF mistakes contributed to baby’s death

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — A social worker whose recommendation allowed a newborn baby to go home with a mother who had serious mental health problems, only to be severely abused, is still employed by the R.I. Department of Children, Youth and Families.

The information shocked some lawmakers on the House Oversight Committee Thursday night, where the state’s child advocate detailed her office’s review of two baby deaths and four near-fatalities last year.

The aforementioned infant was not named in the report, but has previously been identified by police as Tobiloba Olawusi. Baby Tobi was admitted to the hospital at just 3 months old, suffering from at least 12 fractures, a skull fracture and apparent bite marks.

Tobi died at Hasbro Children’s Hospital on November 30.

“Things could’ve been handled much differently, specifically for this child’s life,” said Jennifer Griffith, the child advocate, who serves as watchdog over DCYF. She described to the committee the story of Tobi’s short life, which began when he was born to a mother who had already had a previous child taken away from her by the state.

The mother, Arinola Olawusi, was only allowed to have supervised visitation with her older child, but was allowed to take baby Tobi home, after Griffith says a social worker failed to report the extent of Olawusi’s mental health problems to a family court judge.

“She left things out,” Griffith said.

The judge allowed the baby to go home with the parents under a “safety plan,” in which the mother was not supposed to be alone with the baby. Her husband, Olalekan Olawusi, was tasked with watching the baby at all times.

“Straight out, we don’t feel this makes any sense,” Griffith said. “You have to go to the bathroom; at some point you’re going to sleep.”

Griffith’s report also found that the father had said Tobi would go to a daycare, for which he gave DCYF a fake name and address. DCYF never visited the daycare or verified that it was appropriate, or even existed.

“It was not until after the child presented with extensive injuries was it learned that the address provided was for a vacant building,” the report says.

Tobi’s mother was charged with cruelty and/or neglect of a child, and his father was charged with first-degree child abuse. Charges for Olalekan Olawusi were expected to be upgraded after the baby died, but police said he had jumped bail. There is a warrant out for his arrest for missing his court dates.

Several lawmakers on the committee, including Chairwoman Patricia Serpa were baffled that the social worker who had recommended the baby go home with his parents is still employed by DCYF.

“Babies die, and we still have people working at DCYF? What am I missing? Someone explain to me what I’m missing,” Serpa said, incredulous.

Trista Piccola, the department’s director since 2016, said the situation was reviewed, but she couldn’t go into details about personnel matters. She did say that safety plans similar to the one used in Tobi’s case were no longer being used by DCYF.

Serpa, D-West Warwick, elaborated in an interview after the hearing. “People get fired from jobs for stealing supplies from a company,” she said. “I can’t imagine that someone would still be employed after having a hand in the death of a baby.”

Rep. Teresa Tanzi, D-South Kingstown, asked Piccola if the social worker had been overloaded with cases, drawing quick objections from some of her fellow committee-members.

“I’m not making excuses,” Tanzi responded. “But we can’t just sit here and yell at people and tell them they should be fired. We have a problem in an agency that we have to solve.”

Griffith said social workers are responsible for making sure they can handle their caseloads.

“If you feel … that you have too much to do, you need to tell your supervisor,” Griffith said. “And if your supervisor doesn’t handle it, then you need to call the union. You need to call someone.”

Piccola said progress was being made in filling DCYF vacancies, but said the department was being swamped with calls, as people become more aware of mandated reporting laws. She said investigations had increased by 20%.

“We are still drowning in the department,” Piccola warned.

Griffith also detailed another infant death from July 2017, where a 3-month-old girl died in a Providence home. The report said the newborn was sent home from the hospital despite “numerous risk factors” in the home. Four other children and a grandmother were home at the time of the baby’s death, and a sibling reported the baby had been removed from her crib and brought into bed with the mother. Just five hours before the baby died, police had found the mother passed out in a driveway after a night of drinking.

Griffith said the child review panel would convene again next month to review 17 cases, including five child deaths and 12 near-fatalities.

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Raimondo’s medical marijuana plan could nearly double the patients, raise $5 million in revenue

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SCITUATE, R.I. (WPRI) — Ellen Lennox Smith rides a chair lift down the stairs to her basement, where she tends to plants that most of her neighbors would not find in their garden.

Smith’s 12 marijuana plants produce various strains of cannabis, with names like Blue Mystic and Pineapple Express, which she converts into oil and takes to help manage her pain from a connective tissue disease called Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome. She turned to the drug in 2007 to help manage her pain, after she reacted poorly to other pain medications like opiates.

The first time she tried cannabis, she said, “I literally had slept through the entire night, which was incredibly exciting.” She added, “We took our retirement money and put it into setting up a grow downstairs.”

Smith registered as a patient in Rhode Island’s then-fledgling medical marijuana program, when dispensaries were not yet open. A decade later, the program has exploded – with 19,104 patients and 2,119 caregivers, who are appointed by patients to grow marijuana.

But the number of licensed dispensaries – called compassion centers – has remained relatively low, with three centers located in Providence, Warwick and Portsmouth. Gov. Gina Raimondo is now proposing to expand that to 15 compassion centers as part of the 2018-19 budget plan she submitted to the General Assembly last week.

In addition to adding the 12 new centers, her proposal would add “acute pain” to the list of patient conditions that qualify them for medical marijuana, and would allow Massachusetts and Connecticut cardholders to buy marijuana in Rhode Island.

The expansion is projected to raise $5.1 million in revenue for the state, and would help close the budget hole caused by a mismatch between spending and expected revenue. The expansion is expected to raise $1.1 million in additional sales tax revenue from retail sales at the new compassion centers, $180,565 in additional tax revenue from new patients who qualify as having acute pain, and $248,157 in sales tax revenues from Massachusetts and Connecticut cardholders.

The addition of acute pain as an eligible condition is expected to add up to 16,000 patients, nearly doubling the number of cardholders.

Compassion centers also pay a 4% surcharge on purchases, along with licensing fees. Patients pay an annual fee of $50 to be a cardholder, and a $25 tag fee for each plant, which was added last year.

Norm Birenbaum, who oversees the marijuana program at the R.I. Department of Business Regulation, says the tags help law enforcement confirm that a home grower is not going over the plant limit. And he points out that patients on the SSI or SSDI programs are eligible for reduced application fees and tag fees.

But Smith, who is also a member of the state’s medical marijuana oversight commission, is perturbed by the costs.

“I don’t understand how it is you could even talk about making money off the most vulnerable people in the state,” she said. “It doesn’t make sense to me.” She opposes the sales tax levied on marijuana, which Rhode Island does not collect on other medications. (A spokesperson for the Department of Revenue said marijuana does not qualify as a prescription medication, which is exempt from the sales tax.)

Birenbaum says he’s optimistic the expansion could drive down the prices of medication, with increasing competition from more compassion centers. The goal is to have more home growers buy their cannabis from the centers, which he says are safer and more quality-controlled.

“Home grows can often be dangerous,” he said. “They’re not always compliant with building codes.” He also said marijuana at the dispensaries is tested for mold, mildew, pesticides and contaminants.

“Our goal here is to make it more accessible and more affordable,” Birenbaum said.

Smith said she’ll continue to grow her own marijuana, which she also grows as a caregiver for multiple other patients. While the costs of maintaining the operation are high – her electricity bill alone is $500 a month – she believes it’s still less expensive than buying from a compassion center.

Raimondo’s marijuana proposal will be vetted by the General Assembly in the coming months. Smith said she hopes lawmakers keep patients in mind.

“I just want them to remember we are real people, in need, that are using this for medical reasons,” she said. “And we need to not look at this as a money-maker. I find that, no offense, but I find that insulting.”

 

An earlier version of this story cited a state spokesman who said that over-the-counter medications are exempt from the sales tax in Rhode Island. The spokesman has since clarified that over-the-counter medications have been taxed since 2011.

Local News, News, Politics, Providence

Superintendent: ‘We are in dire need’ of school funding proposed by Raimondo

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — There was a bipartisan standing ovation when Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo proposed a “once in a generation” investment in public school buildings in her State of the State address Tuesday night, and superintendents across the state are already planning for how to make the most of the possible funding.

Raimondo proposed spending $1 billion on school repairs over the next five years, which breaks down to $650 million in state funds and $350 million in municipal funds. If passed by the General Assembly, the plan would ask voters to approve a $250 million general-obligation bond on the ballot in November, and would continue the current $80 million annual appropriation for school repairs.

“I’m so glad she emphasized the school bonding issue,” East Providence Schools Superintendent Kathryn Crowley said Wednesday. “We are in dire need of that money.”

Like districts across the state, East Providence schools are in need of repairs; Riverside Middle School flooded on Tuesday, and Myron Francis Elementary School had to close last week after a pipe burst. The 67-year-old East Providence High School is in such disrepair, Crowley says the city needs to build a brand new one.

“The mechanical and the electrical beneath that high school has deteriorated to such a point that we’re constantly band-aiding it,” Crowley said. “I’m operating on a wing and a prayer.”

Eyewitness News took a tour of the school last month, where some areas have been blocked off to students due to cracked ceilings, crumbling concrete and rusty pipes.

Raimondo’s speech was music to Crowley’s ears.

“It would be really impossible to raise that kind of money without state help,” Crowley said. Plans are already in the works to build the new school, with an estimated cost of $170 to $190 million.

While Raimondo has not yet released all the details of the program including how cities and towns will qualify for the money, Crowley believes East Providence could get up to 75% of the cost of a new high school from the state. She said she met with the governor about the proposal last week.

“Cities and towns will continue to have to invest in their owns schools,” Raimondo told reporters Wednesday. “But they do that now, and every city and town will be made better because of this program.”

She said more specifics would be released Thursday, along with her entire tax-and-spending plan for the 2018-19 state budget year.

A task force slated with reviewing the problem of crumbling schools recommended last month that the state borrow $500 million by 2022 for the repairs, in addition to continuing to set aside $80 million per year for school infrastructure projects.

The task force also recommended a “bonus system” that would incentivize towns and cities that move quickly to make repairs.

Raimondo’s pitch was generally well-received at the State House Tuesday night. Republican House Minority Leader Patricia Morgan, who was critical of much the governor’s speech, said she’s open to the school funding proposal.

“I think children and teachers deserve healthy schools to spend their days in,” Morgan said. “I just want to know the details.”

Crowley, who is also the chair of the legislative committee of the Rhode Island Schools Superintendents’ Association, said she plans to testify in favor of the plan in the General Assembly.

“It’s so important to the children, and the children are our future,” Crowley said.

Kim Kalunian contributed to this report.

Local News, News, Politics, Providence

Proposed law would exempt senior citizens from jury duty in Rhode Island

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Rhode Islanders aged 70 or older would be off the hook for jury duty under a newly proposed bill, unless they choose otherwise.

The bill, introduced in the House this week by Rep. Samuel Azzinaro, D-Westerly, would add those senior citizens to the list of people exempted from jury service in the state.

The list also includes members of Congress, the state’s general officers, members of the General Assembly, the jury commissioner and assistants, judges, court clerks, practicing attorneys, correctional officers, deputy sheriffs, probation and parole officers, police officers, firefighters and active duty members of the armed services.

All of the groups have the option to waive their exemption, if they want to still be called for jury service.

Rep. Azzinaro said he introduced the exemptions for seniors at the request of constituents.

“Many retired people head south or west for the winter months and may not get notified because they are away and not receive the mail,” Azzinaro said in an email. “Also many seniors have to depend on someone to drive them to various places.”

The bill was referred to the House Municipal Government Committee.

Massachusetts has a similar law, which allows residents ages 70 and older to choose to be removed from the jury list.