Medical pot shops in Rhode Island may have to pay 50 times more for their licenses — the highest fee by far in New England.
The latest draft of the state budget, scheduled for a vote Friday, proposes increasing the annual fee to renew a license from $5,000 to $250,000.
When a concerned lawmaker asked House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello about the increase during a budget briefing Tuesday, the Democrat said it would align Rhode Island with other states and he didn't think dispensaries would mind.
Other states in the region charge significantly less. New Hampshire has charged up to $80,000, but they now use a formula that is expected to reduce the payments this year. The fee is $50,000 in Massachusetts, $25,000 in Vermont, $12,000 in Maine and $5,000 in Connecticut.
But the Thomas C. Slater Center, the state's largest dispensary, doesn't seem very concerned. The shop said its top priority was to make sure the state didn't expand the number of licenses.
"Our primary concern has always been expansion of facilities," said Slater spokesman Chris Reilly.
Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo's budget proposal in January included a plan to allow for 15 dispensaries in Rhode Island. There are currently three. Raimondo said the plan would expand access to care and create a $5-million revenue stream for the state.
House lawmakers quashed that plan in the same budget that contains the dramatically heightened fee.
Rhode Island shops are worried recreational stores will soon open just across the border in Massachusetts, Reilly said. If Rhode Island also expanded its licenses, he said Slater wouldn't be able to survive.
Recreational pot shops are scheduled to open in Massachusetts on July 1, but those prospects appear to be dimming because the state's Cannabis Control Commission hasn't issued any licenses.
The Ocean State has a comparable number of medical shops per capita to others in New England. There are 29 in Massachusetts, nine in Connecticut, eight in Maine, five in Vermont and four in New Hampshire.
Rhode Island's two other dispensaries couldn't be reached for comment.
Reilly said the state could open new revenue sources without expanding the amount of licenses. One method would be to let Massachusetts and Connecticut cardholders use Rhode Island's shops. There is a provision in the budget to do that.