Assistant master grower Austin Carlisle inspects a marijuana plant at High Country Healing in Silverthorne on Jan. 6, 2015. (Helen H. Richardson, Denver Post file)

$350 pot plant tax proposal peeves patient advocates in Rhode Island

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Medical marijuana advocates are opposing an annual $350-per-plant fee that Rhode Island Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo wants to impose on some growers as part of her budget plan.

Some state lawmakers on Thursday introduced an alternative: Legalize and tax recreational marijuana instead of making patients pay more for the drug they use as medicine.

Raimondo said she supports Rhode Island’s decade-old medical marijuana program but said her proposal to tax each state-approved marijuana plant would improve it.

“It is meant to bring order to the system that we currently have, which is fairly unregulated and disorderly and inconsistent,” she said.

The proposal would raise an estimated $8 million for the state, some of which the governor said would be reinvested into the system to make it work better for hospice patients and others.

Raimondo called the proposed fees “fairly modest” and “meant to be not onerous.”

But patient and caregiver advocates disagree and held a press conference Thursday morning calling the proposal a “sick tax” that would hurt people who need the drug to manage pain.

Patients who grow marijuana for themselves would pay a $150 annual fee for each plant, while registered caregivers and cultivators who grow it for multiple patients would pay $350 annually per plant.

Advocates questioned figures provided by state health officials that based the fees on an estimated $17,000 in annual revenue for each plant. Michael Raia of the Office of Health & Human Services said the estimate was developed with help from medical marijuana industry representatives.

“We acknowledge that not all caregivers will produce the same amount,” he said.

Raimondo said she is sensitive to patient concerns and “open to listening and hearing” as lawmakers debate the details of the budget proposal she unveiled last week.

Those concerns also on Thursday helped fuel a long-shot push to legalize recreational marijuana in the state. State Sen. Joshua Miller and Rep. Scott Slater, both Democrats, planned to introduce pot legalization bills in the Senate and House on Thursday afternoon.

Similar bills have failed in previous years. A spokesman for Democratic House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello said it is not on the top lawmaker’s agenda. Mattiello has said lawmakers will consider the governor’s proposed medical marijuana tax and other parts of her budget plan.