STORY OF THE WEEK: From a marketing standpoint, the idea of enlisting a 96-year-old World War II vet to make the ceremonial first purchase of recreational cannabis at the Slater Compassion Center was …
STORY OF THE WEEK: From a marketing standpoint, the idea of enlisting a 96-year-old World War II vet to make the ceremonial first purchase of recreational cannabis at the Slater Compassion Center was on-point; if a grandpa (whose grandson is CEO at Slater) is comfortable with putting down cash for edibles, who could really object?
But Joe Maraia’s brief star turn in launching recreational sales at five dispensaries across Rhode Island also points to a sea change in public attitudes about cannabis. Nineteen states have legalized recreational sales – a situation that few would have expected a decade ago.
A parallel can be seen in how Rhode Island approved same-sex marriage in 2013 – a year after openly gay then-House Speaker Gordon Fox declined to bring the issue to the floor. These examples point to how forward motion on certain issues comes after years of effort by grassroots activists.
Another case is how reluctant legislative leaders were convinced to pass a state-based abortion law in in Rhode Island in 2019 (and also how the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe vs. Wade followed many years of organizing by activists on the other side of the issue).
This is a reminder that government typically functions more like a tanker than a speed boat, adjusting course gradually in response to changing conditions (and squeaky wheels, to mix metaphors), rather than turning on a dime.
THE REGULATOR: Even with the start of adult-use recreational sales, Rhode Island will not achieve peak retail cannabis until an expected total of 33 outlets open over the next few years. Gov. Dan McKee plans to flesh out the Cannabis Control Commission, the body that will award additional retail licenses, in the new year. Director of the state Office of Cannabis Regulation Matt Santacroce avoided a yes or no answer when asked this week if he’s convinced that legal cannabis will be a net positive for the state.
In part, he said, “[T]he legislature and the bill that was passed set up a very important mechanism through which some of the revenues that will be generated by these sales will be directed back into things like prevention, public health campaigns and education and awareness campaigns. And so I think, you know, as we keep an eye on how this goes in Rhode Island, that’s going to be something that folks are really looking at.”
With questions about whether the state’s social equity effort with cannabis will live up to the billing, Santacroce said the outlook bears watching, particularly with the Cannabis Control Commission yet to take shape.
Finally, with psychedelics taking on a heightened role in therapy, the regulator was asked whether he expects RI to pursue legalization or decriminalization of other drugs. His response: “I'm personally fascinated by that. Professionally, we're trying to get this right. First things first.”
WELP: It was a bit of a tough recent week for Rhode Island in DC. As House Democrats prepare to move into the minority, U.S. Rep. David Cicilline launched a surprise bid for the number four post in the caucus, only to fold his tent a day later amid some backlash. And U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse got rebuffed on his proposal to keep senior members of Democratic leadership from also chairing top Senate committees.
[OTOH] GINAWORLD: U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo’s vocal mannerisms remain the same as when she was governor – saying “yeah,” in her initial response to a question, offering a little ‘tee-hee’ laugh in response to a humorous quip – as her recent interview with Kim Kalunian shows.
For me, it was funny to hear echoes of my many past conversations with Raimondo, given how she has emerged as such a high-flier on the national stage. Just in recent days, she’s met with the deputy prime minister of Ukraine, spoken at MIT about competing with China, and been on the guest list for a state dinner with French President Emmanuel Macron.
Raimondo was also the focus of a splashy recent piece in the New York Times – headline: “A Rising Star in the Biden Administration Faces a $100 Billion Test” – discussing Commerce’s role in distributing a windfall meant to boost broadband and the U.S. computer chip industry. The NYT story missed the recent court setback for RhodeWorks and how Mike and Thomas Donilon are Providence natives, although it continued the (locally) time-honored practice of speculating about the former governor’s political future: “Ms. Raimondo’s work has earned her praise from Republicans and Democrats, along with labor unions and corporations. Her supporters say she could ascend to another cabinet position, run for the Senate or perhaps mount a presidential bid.”
THAT’S AMORE: Secretary of State-elect Gregg Amore staffed up this week, announcing the following members of his team: LeeAnn Byrne, deputy CoS for General Treasurer Seth Magaziner, as chief of staff; former CF state Rep. Shelby Maldonado, returning to the Ocean State after a few years with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, as deputy secretary of state/director of operations; elections expert Rob Rock as deputy secretary of state/director of administration; Providence elections administrator Kathy Placencia as director of elections; Michelle Arias Santabay, former AG Peter Neronha staffer, as director of intergovernmental affairs; Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza’s comms chief, Faith Chadwick, as comms director; and Eileen Sweeney as director of community outreach and engagement.
TAKE OF THE WEEK: Various views from a mix of Rhode Islanders.
Journalist/writer Phil Eil: “I love books and I love Providence. And one of the many things I love about Providence is our abundance of cozy, welcoming, idiosyncratic, expertly curated, and locally owned independent bookstores. (In the rare instances when I am obligated to travel outside the Ocean State, I always appreciate just how rare this is.)
“So, as you go about your holiday shopping this year, please remember to steer some of your dollars away from Amazon or Barnes & Noble and into the coffers of these hometown businesses — Books on the Square, Twenty Stories, Symposium Books, Paper Nautilus, Riffraff, Cellar Stories, Lovecraft Arts & Sciences — that, for me, are a large part of what makes this city so special. Would I have become a writer if I hadn’t found a slightly tattered copy of William Zinsser’s On Writing Well for $0.99 in a bargain bin at the Brown Bookstore not long after I graduated from college? I can’t say for sure. But I can say that you’re unlikely to have that kind of life-altering experience while shopping online.”
State Rep. Brian C. Newberry (R-North Smithfield): “Given all the retirements, Democratic primary challengers and strong GOP challengers, I think many expected six months ago to see a lot more turnover in the General Assembly this election season. Instead the opposite happened and it may be the most status quo election since I first ran nearly 20 years ago, at least in the House.
“It will be interesting to see how that plays out because I have a hard time believing people are actually happy with the status quo. Perhaps they just didn’t like the alternatives or, more likely given low voter turnout, tuned out and stayed home.
“The speaker is going to continue to get pressured by his left wing. Is he going to continue to move in that direction, seeing the election results as a referendum on his moving that way the past two years, or is he going to stop trying to placate people who would cast him aside in a heartbeat if they could and take a more centrist approach?”
Policy analyst at the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy Andrew Boardman: “Earlier this year, Rhode Island lawmakers enacted a child tax rebate program delivering checks worth $250 per kid to tens of thousands of families across the state, a one-time move aimed at shoring up struggling household finances amid soaring costs. It proved a success: This fall the state Division of Taxation distributed payments to 95% of the eligible population in just over a month, with most households receiving their cash automatically because the agency already held all the needed information.
“These encouraging results demonstrate the feasibility and transformative potential of using the tax code to do more to uplift families and kids on an ongoing basis. Why let the child tax rebate fade as a one-hit wonder? A growing number of states are adopting or expanding their own permanent child tax benefit programs, many modeled on the federal child tax credit which in temporarily enlarged form last year helped nearly halve U.S. youth poverty.
“Rhode Island is not yet in this group, but it could be -- and perhaps should be, explains a recent report from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy and the Center on Poverty and Social Policy at Columbia University. The report finds permanently renewing Rhode Island’s child tax rebate at $250 per year would reduce child poverty by 6%, lifting many into financial security while bolstering the middle class. More ambitious expansions could achieve even greater improvements. And estimates show even a narrower proposal, like filling the gaps in the federal child credit for the lowest-income Rhode Island families, could have consequential impacts. With no shortage of options and ideas, the question stands: What will state leaders do to build on the success of this year’s child tax rebate?”
LeeAnn Byrne: “As I prepare to take the role of chief of staff for Secretary of State-elect Gregg Amore, I have been thinking about Ady Barkan, an inspirational advocate who has fought for healthcare access while battling ALS, and who once said: ‘The cure to what ails American democracy is more American democracy.’
“In the face of flagging trust in government and challenges to election integrity, Secretary-elect Amore and our team will work to expand voter participation, increase civics education and engage more Rhode Islanders to grow their trust. We can increase access to voting with same-day voter registration, a permanent mail ballot list, and finish the implementation of the Let Rhode Island Vote Act. We will improve our collaboration with the Board of Elections and local elections officials while making the process more transparent for the public.
“Secretary-elect Amore's experience as a civics, government and history educator will be key to creating a liaison program between the office and local students and teachers, incorporating the state's historical records into civics curriculum statewide and engaging young or soon-to-be voters. At the same time, we have the opportunity to bring our history and government alive for Rhode Islanders of all ages -- and tourists, too -- by establishing a museum that highlights and celebrates the State’s contributions to the nation's history. It is a great honor to be joining Secretary-elect Amore's office as he works to bring more democracy to Rhode Islanders.”
United Way of Rhode Island President/CEO Cortney Nicolato: The results of a new survey on the state of our nonprofit sector released this week were not, unfortunately, surprising to the tens of thousands of Rhode Islanders who work at these organizations, or the many more that rely on their important programs and services. They should, however, be incredibly alarming to everyone else.
“As a state, public and private, we can no longer fail to invest in the capacity and sustainability of our nonprofits at the level they both deserve and have earned. Not if Rhode Island is to realize a full and prosperous economic recovery. In a sector that employs nearly 17% of our state’s workforce -- more than local manufacturing -- 60% report community demand as higher than pre-pandemic levels. And experienced, talented professionals are leaving the sector; 46% of orgs have already lost staff, while 59% have current staff considering the same. The consequences of this are widespread, across [the] workforce and the delivery of services our entire state depends on.
“It is time to fully view our nonprofits as the small business, economic drivers they are and to make the long-term investments that support a Rhode Island where everyone has the opportunity to thrive.”
KICKER: Donald Trump was the subject of the first chapter in “Media Circus: The Trouble with America’s Newspapers,” a 1993 book by media critic Howard Kurtz. Excerpt: “It is a bit embarrassing to recall how wild we all went over The Donald, how eagerly we gushed over his antics and how utterly inconsequential it all seems now. Trump set the standard for pointless excess in the press, a standard that now serves to remind us of our worst shortcomings: the relentless panting after big-name stars, the bottomless fascination with seamy gossip, the tawdry spectacle of highbrow newspapers following tabloids into the gutter. It was the ultimate media circus ….”
Ian Donnis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org