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Cannabis Control Commission nominees vow to prioritize equitable decision making


Cannabis Control Commission nominees vow to prioritize equitable decision making

Jun 07, 2023 | 4:12 pm ET
By Christopher Shea
Cannabis Control Commission nominees vow to prioritize equitable decision making
Kimberly Ahern, Gov. Dan McKee's deputy chief of staff and pick to chair the Cannabis Control Commission, testifies before the Senate Judiciary on June 6, 2023. (Photo by Christopher Shea/Rhode Island Current)

PROVIDENCE — If confirmed by a full Senate vote, Gov. Dan McKee’s long-awaited picks to the Cannabis Control Commission all said they plan to prioritize social equity applicants who seek to take part in the state’s growing recreational marijuana industry.

McKee’s picks — former State Rep. Robert Jacquard, Kimberly Ahern, and personal-injury attorney Layi Oduyingbo — were all unanimously advanced by the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday for a full Senate vote. Committee Chair Dawn Euer, a Newport Democrat, said the nominees will likely be up for a floor vote early next week.

The three members of the Cannabis Control Commission would serve staggered terms as they oversee regulation and licensing of recreational and medical marijuana in the state. The Rhode Island Cannabis Act, which legalized recreational cannabis use last year, called for the governor to name his picks within 40 days of the bill becoming law — which was July 4, 2022. McKee didn’t submit his picks until May 17 of this year.

Prior to their approval by the Judiciary Committee, activists testified the need for commissioners to prioritize issues of equity focused on race and economics.

Andre Dev, a founding member of PVD Flowers cooperative, said he has observed several barriers of entry into the state’s budding marijuana industry for working class Rhode Islanders and people of color. 

Under the state’s marijuana legalization law, a “social equity” applicant as someone who has “been disproportionately impacted by criminal enforcement of marijuana laws, including individuals convicted of nonviolent marijuana offenses, immediate family members of individuals convicted of nonviolent marijuana offenses, and individuals who have resided in disproportionately impacted areas for at least five of the last 10 years.”

According to a 2020 report from the American Civil Liberties Union Rhode Island chapter, Black people were 3.3 times more likely to be arrested for cannabis related offenses than whites in the state. Because of this, Dev said, many equity applicants may face challenges in quickly setting up a business.

Activists call on Senate to ask questions of new cannabis board nods

“Opening a cannabis dispensary and any small business involves a huge amount of unpaid work,” he said. “That’s always going to favor people with wealth and privilege.”

Ahern, who is the governor’s pick to chair the commission, currently serves as McKee’s deputy chief of staff. She also served as deputy counsel for former Gov. Gina Raimondo and spent nine years with the Rhode Island Office of the Attorney General as special assistant to the attorney general. 

Ahern said her background, particularly in working with criminal justice policy, will inform her awareness on social equity moving forward. She told the Senate Judiciary Committee that if approved for the commission, she would implement the goals of the Rhode Island Cannabis Act “in a matter that is safe, transparent, and equitable in the years to come.”

“The act places a strong emphasis on social equity and worker-owned cooperatives and I’m eager to get started on those aspects,” Ahern said.

If approved, Ahern’s term expires on May 17, 2025.

Jacquard, a self-employed attorney who served in the General Assembly from 1993 to 2021, said the state law provides enough framework for the commission to “achieve many of the goals” activists have brought up. The biggest way to do this, he said, is to be transparent in decisions and to listen to all who come before the commission.

Cannabis Control Commission nominees vow to prioritize equitable decision making
Former State Rep. Robert Jacquard said the ideal way to be an equitable commission is to be transparent and listen to applicants. (Photo by Christopher Shea/Rhode Island Current)

“In order for these businesses to be successful, they need to have public support and the confidence of the public,” Jacquard said.

Along with working as an attorney, Jacquard also served 22 years with the Cranston Police Department, where he said he did have to arrest people for carrying marijuana — which was illegal at the time.

Jacquard told the committee that his views on marijuana have changed since his days on the force.

“I think adults understand what they’re getting into and have the right to make their own decisions involving substances,” he said. The only prohibition, Jacquard said, should be with children.

​​Jacquard’s term would expire in 2026.

Cannabis Control Commission nominees vow to prioritize equitable decision making
Layi Oduyingbo is one of two Cranston residents nominated to serve on the Cannabis Control Commission. (Photo by Christopher Shea/Rhode Island Current)

Oduyingbo, the last of McKee’s three picks to testify before the Judiciary Committee, told lawmakers that his own experience as a Black man will help him to succeed as a commissioner in understanding equity cases.

“It is up to the commission to carry out its duties in a way that is equitable and just,” he said. “I am confident I am able to do that.”

If approved by the Senate, Oduyingbo’s term would expire in 2024.