After years of Mass. competition, RI dispensaries open for pot sales – The Providence Journal

PROVIDENCE – The first day of legal weed sales in Rhode Island Thursday was, well, mellow – punctuated by a 96-year-old war veteran buying a pot cookie to have with his coffee and a state senator picking up some cannabis-infused stocking-stuffers for friends. 
Absent at the five medical marijuana dispensaries that turned attention to recreational-use sales for the first time were any reports of long lines or traffic snarls like those that greeted the openings of the first pot shops in Massachusetts in 2018. 
Back then, no other Northeast state had recreational sales, and the novelty drew wide attention. Today only New Hampshire remains without an adult-use program. And Rhode Island marijuana users have been buying all the pot they want for years at the many Massachusetts stores situated along the border. 
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Still, the morning wasn’t without some last-minute jockeying among the dispensaries to see which would host that first Rhode Island recreational sale. 
After reading in The Journal Wednesday that RISE of Warwick planned a 5:45 a.m. ribbon cutting, Joseph Pakuris, co-owner of Mother Earth Wellness in Pawtucket, said he called upon one of his marijuana suppliers, Karen Ballou, to get to his Pawtucket dispensary before then. 
There, around 5:30 a.m. Ballou spent $14 for one pre-rolled joint, a product grown by her own West Warwick cultivation company, “Cultivating RI.”  
“There is a lot of passion in the business, a lot of excitement around recreation,” she said. “It’s something that we’ve all worked the past six years to get to this point. And it’s going to be good for the economy.” 
Ballou said Rhode Island’s group of 64 licensed medical marijuana growers, which employ hundreds of workers, has been waiting a long time for an expanded market to sell to. In that time, they perfected their craft. “It allowed us to really put out the best, at the time, medicine, and now the best cannabis for adult use.” 
Minutes after Ballou’s ceremonial purchase, 11 miles away in Warwick, about 15 customers congregated by the door of RISE, formerly known as the Summit dispensary, as a steel-drum duo performed.  
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Most customers were actually regular medical marijuana patrons looking to get their medicine early before the day’s event drew too big a crowd. Only a handful were in line for the 6 a.m. start to recreational-use sales, with Christopher Hampton, 44, of Exeter, at the front. 
Hampton, who runs a local Cumberland Farms store, said he began smoking marijuana for his epilepsy in 2012. Since them “I’ve become a marijuana enthusiast. I’ve made bongs out of apples and watermelons.” 
“I’m excited about being the first rec customer,” he said. And happy to no longer to be driving Massachusetts for his marijuana. “I’ll definitely be saving some money.”
Hampton said he hoped that with marijuana’s legal status will come a greater awareness of the drug’s medicinal benefits. “I think it’s going to open up everyone’s eyes as to what it really is. It’s so beneficial, people don’t understand.” 
Sharon Murrah, the Northeast regional director for RISE marijuana dispensaries, said after a ribbon cutting that, with the expansion of recreational sales in Rhode Island, the staff at the Jefferson Boulevard dispensary had grown from about 40 employees to more than 100. 
“I cannot be more proud of this team, and to be able to open up our doors for adult use in the state of Rhode Island. I’m so excited.”
Shortly before 8 a.m., at the Thomas C. Slater Compassion Center in Providence, 96-year-old Joseph Maraia pushed his walker toward the dispensary counter as two dozen workers and relatives cheered and the television cameras rolled. 
Maraia, the grandfather of Slater CEO Gerald McGraw, wore a black cap stitched with the words “World War II veteran” and held a roll of cash in one hand as he ordered one cookie and a few coconut macaroons infused with marijuana. 
“Now, how much do I owe you?” he asked the helpful woman at the counter. 
“You’re at forty dollars and eighty cents today,” she said. 
“I’d start eating them now but I already had my breakfast,” he said. 
After his celebrated purchase, Maraia, who served in the Seabees during the war, said “I’m happy to be part of seeing something that’s happening all over the country. I think [Rhode Island] should join the rest of the nation. … We seem to always be the last.”  
Maraia saw a parallel between marijuana changing status and the lifting of alcohol prohibition a century ago: “They made that legal and it’s worked out well for that.” He expected the same result with marijuana. 
Was he really going to eat that cookie and the macaroons? “You bet your life, I’m gonna give it a try. I’ll probably have it with coffee.” 
Christopher Reilly, a spokesman for the Slater dispensary, said opening up recreational-use sales could create a pool of between 80,000 and 100,000 new potential customers. 
“So, there will be an uptick” in business, certainly, he said. How big? “We’re going to find out soon enough. This is all new to us.” 
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After years of debate, lawmakers passed a marijuana legalization bill in May and Gov. Dan McKee signed it quickly into law. 
The two chief sponsors of the legislation, Rep. Scott Slater and Sen. Joshua Miller, mingled with customers Thursday at the newly opened Mother Earth dispensary, which resembles a jewelry store with pot products and accessories in glass display cases. 
“This will be good for the state, good for people who want to use safe and tested cannabis for adult use, and good for our cultivators, who are some of the best cannabis growers in the country,” said Slater. 
(Mother Earth, like other dispensaries, sells various marijuana plant strains under their cultivator’s brand name.) 
Miller had some of those cultivators in mind Thursday when his purchased a few Christmas gifts for friends and co-workers. (“I’m not really a person that uses it.”) The total came to $277. 
“They come from a couple of cultivators I knew that were struggling.” 
Email Tom Mooney at tmooney@providencejournal.com
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