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R.I. House panel votes to legalize hemp

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — With questions remaining Tuesday as to whether the state is prepared to regulate a new industry, the House Health, Education and Welfare Committee voted 14-2 to legalize hemp.

Lawmakers acknowledged concerns raised by law enforcement over how to control a cannabis-based industry. But most ultimately voiced support saying there would be more controls over the hemp industry than there are over its medical marijuana program.

“This is much more stringent for a much less dangerous product,” Chairman Joseph McNamara said.

The bill sponsored by Rep. Cale Keable, D-Burrillville, allows anyone who passes a national criminal background check to grow hemp or “CDB-rich hemp” — a form of cannabis. Industrial hemp can be used for cloth and paper products, and some believe that strains that are high in CDB, or cannabidiol, have medicinal purposes.

Changes to the legislation were still being drafted minutes before the committee met. Among them: applicants for hemp growing licenses will be responsible for paying for the required background check. If licensed, the entity will be responsible for the costs associated with testing the product.

The bill defines hemp as having less than 1 percent of the psychoactive ingredient THC — a point law enforcement has said will pose problems as the state does not have the capacity to test. Rep. Samuel Azzinaro, D-Westerly, questioned if the Department of Health will be prepared to handle regulation. While the bill would charge steep application fees, it does not create a restricted receipts account for the funding.

Christina Batastini, a spokeswoman for the Department of Health, said the agency has no position on the original bill and had not viewed the amended version as of Tuesday night.

The amended bill also slaps growers with a $25,000 application fee to the state Division of Agriculture. If approved, growers would have to renew their licenses every three years, each time at a cost of $25,000. Despite law enforcement’s concerns that the bill will create a limitless number of growers who could easily mix marijuana with their hemp crops, the amended version included no limit to the number of licenses in the state.

“You’re not going to get Joe Schmoe from out in the woods somewhere coming in saying ‘Oh, I’m going to start growing hemp’ and then have marijuana growing with it because you’re not going to be able to do this until you’ve had a national criminal background check, and you’ve paid that $25,000 fee up front,” McNamara said.

Phyto Pharmaceuticals LLC, the company whose proposal to set up shop in Rhode Island has been driving the legislation, was also a point of discussion. Founders Anthony Alfonso and Alex Lavin told they committee they will make an initial $5 million to $7 million investment in the state if the hemp is legalized, focusing on the supplement industry.

Rep. Robert Lancia, R-Cranston, who voted against the bill, said he remains uncomfortable with the measure, in part because it’s targeted at a specific entity. He reiterated earlier statements that Phyto’s presentation seemed to “slick.”

Rep. Arthur Corvese, D-North Providence, agreed saying, “Whenever someone’s a little slick, you have to think twice.” But he ultimately defended the bill, noting that Phyto is not seeking any state financing and the state should be “business-friendly.”

Rep. Kathleen Fogarty, D-South Kingstown, said she was primarily concerned about Phyto’s statements that it wants to make CDB-rich hemp that could be used to treat children with epilepsy, noting the regulation and development time of such products.

“That could be a liability for the state ... . I just don’t want to see the state have a problem down the road,” Fogarty said.

In response, McNamara pointed to a section of the bill stating that the Department of Health will develop regulations for sales, storage, manufacturing and testing of hemp products.

“There is no reference to medical products. So that’s been removed. They’re going to be the rules and procedures that are overseen by the Department of Health,” McNamara said.

The amended version of the bill, however, appears to make no change to the types of products that can be made from hemp. Both versions define hemp and CDB-rich hemp products as “all products made from the plants, including but not limited to concentrated oil, cloth, cordage, fiber, food, fuel, paint, paper, construction materials, plastics, seed, seed meal, seed oil and certified seed for cultivation.”

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