Arguments filed Friday on behalf of the House and Senate say lawmakers have already promised to repeal the veto provision challenged in court by Gov. Gina Raimondo.
PROVIDENCE — “It makes little sense” to have taxpayers — and the courts — spend time and money on a challenge by Gov. Gina Raimondo to a new law giving the legislature veto power over new medical marijuana and hemp regulations when the law is already slated for repeal.
That is the gist of the argument that Lauren Jones, the newly hired lawyer for the state House of Representatives and the Senate, made in one of two motions filed in Superior Court late Friday.
Beyond that, he noted, there are no regulations yet.
So, “contrary to the claims of the governor, there is no present constitutional crisis because there is no case … [and] there is no reason to take up the court’s valuable time,” Jones argued.
The legal fight centers on a provision lawmakers attached to this year’s state budget at the same time they authorized six new medical-marijuana dispensaries in Rhode Island. Along with the expansion from three to nine marijuana dispensaries, they made all new cannabis-related regulations — including those related to the potentially lucrative hemp industry — “subject to approval by the General Assembly.”
In a lawsuit filed on Oct. 22, lawyers representing Raimondo contend the legislature’s move violates the “separation of powers” requirement in the state Constitution that gives the “executive branch” — in this case, the Raimondo administration — sole power over both the adoption of regulations and issuance of licenses in the emerging cannabis industry.
By then, House Speaker Nicholas A. Mattiello had already promised to back repeal of the legislature’s veto power of the regulations when the General Assembly returns to session in January.
Explaining the turnaround, Mattiello spokesman Larry Berman said: “The General Assembly wanted to ensure that the regulatory process would be fair, open and transparent to everyone and deemed that additional oversight would accomplish this. However, the governor has strongly objected. As a result, the House and Senate leaderships intend to pass legislation in January to reverse that provision in the law.”
That did not satisfy Raimondo, who nonetheless sued Mattiello and Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio to get the court to, as she would later tell reporters, “enforce the Constitution” and “let people know that Rhode Island is open for business, everyone has a chance to compete, and it’s just not for the politically connected.”
With Attorney General Peter Neronha unwilling to take sides at this point in the fight between Raimondo and the General Assembly, his office is expected to pay Jones’ legal bills. (The governor has hired outside lawyer Marc DeSisto to support her chief legal counsel, Claire Richards, and the in-house lawyers for the Department of Business Regulation and the Department of Health.)
On Friday, Jones filed two motions.
One seeks the dismissal of Raimondo’s lawsuit. His argument: neither the Department of Business Regulation nor the Department of Health “have proposed any rules or regulations or … commenced the process for adoption of any rules or regulations that would potentially be subject [to the] legislative-approval provisions.”
In the event his motion to dismiss the case is denied, Jones filed a motion to “stay” the litigation.
With repeal promised, he again argues: “The speaker and president respectfully suggest that the court exercise its discretion to stay these proceedings pending the 2020 legislative session and the repeal of the legislative-approval provisions. …”
“It makes little sense for this litigation to use the resources of this court, the legislature, and the governor when the speaker and the president have assured the governor that the provisions the governor finds offensive to separation of powers will be repealed.”
Raimondo was not alone in raising red flags about the legislature’s attempted move into marijuana regulation. Common Cause Rhode Island also objected, saying it introduces political meddling into decisions that should be made by subject-matter experts and presents opportunities for corruption.
The governor at one point told reporters that the process for choosing who will win licenses for the six new dispensaries next year will not mirror the allegedly corrupt process used in Fall River, where federal officials have charged the twice-indicted mayor, who’s on leave of absence with a mayor-elect soon to replace him, with taking bribes from marijuana businesses.
Raimondo said the new Rhode Island licenses will be chosen through a lottery system, and the process and criteria used for deciding which companies win the lucrative licenses are still being drafted by regulators.
One emerging marijuana company has threatened Rhode Island regulators with a lawsuit if the state doesn’t begin accepting license applications immediately.
In an Oct. 7 letter to Norman Birenbaum, the state’s top marijuana regulator, Green Reservoir, of Warwick, says regulators are violating new laws by not issuing licenses now.
“If prompt action is not taken with respect to the licensing of new compassion centers [otherwise known as dispensaries], our office is prepared to file a complaint with the Rhode Island Superior Court,” wrote Stephen Izzi, a lawyer for Green Reservoir. Izzi wrote that the company plans to combine forces with Kelsey Green, a company licensed to cultivate medical marijuana.
Responding, a Department of Business Regulation lawyer said, “the law does not prescribe a timetable for when after July 1 the department must accept applications.”