MAYOR ON CANNABIS SHOPS: ‘Do you really want this kind of business in Johnston?’

Johnston voters set to decide whether to allow cannabis cultivation and retail sales


Johnston voters will decide whether recreational pot shops will open in town.

The local rules and regulations for cannabis use in Rhode Island are changing.

One pot ordinance prohibiting outdoor cannabis use in town recently passed Town Council, and the other measure, deciding whether to allow recreational pot sellers in town storefronts, will be decided by a referendum on Johnston’s General Election ballot in November.

“Chris had to remove someone … ,” Johnston Mayor Joseph M. Polisena told Town Council in August. He paused and turned to Johnston’s Director of Recreational and Community Services, Christopher Correia, who replied: “Recently.”

“Because he was in the park smoking pot,” Polisena continued.

Town officials had little recourse. There was no public pot smoking ban in place. But there is now.

Polisena has long been an opponent of cannabis legalization in Rhode Island.

However, Rhode Island Gov. Dan McKee signed legislation legalizing recreational marijuana use into law on May 25. Since then, 39 cities and towns have been left to define their local regulations on pot-use in their own communities.

Polisena’s son, Town Council Vice President Joe Polisena Jr., introduced the outdoor ban ordinance at the Aug. 9 meeting. The two differ greatly on their cannabis prohibition views.

“This is just an ordinance that would just prohibit using marijuana on town property; just schools, ball fields,” Joe Polisena Jr. said. “As someone who supports the legalization of marijuana, I think there’s a huge difference between whether you do it in your house alone or that you irritate a bunch of people because of the smell. I don’t think people want to smell it at the park.”

The first ordinance, “Public Consumption Prohibited,” “prohibits the consumption of Cannabis on Town Property including Parks, Recreational Facilities or any other Public Property or Building including but not limited to Public Schools.”

The second ordinance, will answer the following question:

“Shall new Cannabis related licenses for businesses involved in the cultivation, manufacture, laboratory testing and for the retail sale of adult recreational use of Cannabis be issued in the Town?”

The resolution will be included on the Nov 8 General Election ballot.

Joe Polisena Jr., and his father, Johnston Mayor Joseph M. Polisena, fundamentally disagree on the blanket issue of recreational cannabis prohibition.

While Polisena Jr. supports the change in state law, Mayor Polisena has long opposed legalization.

“Obviously, I can speak from a position of strength,” Polisena recalled recently. “In 1987, on duty as a fireman, I found my brother dead from an overdose and I saved his life.”

Polisena was on duty one night when the bells tipped and he was dispatched to a familiar address, 51 Pinewood Ave.

“Oh crap, that’s my parents’ house,” Polisena said to himself. “On my way down, I asked, ‘What’s the call?’ They answered it was for an unresponsive male. I found my brother in the driveway; he had been dead several minutes. He had vomitus in his airway; I suctioned it out; defibrillated him.”

Their mother was in the background yelling: “Do something! Do something!”

Finally, a heartbeat returned, but Mayor Polisena’s brother spent about three months unconscious, struggling to survive.

“My mother prayed by his bedside,” Polisena recalled. “Then he walked out of the hospital.”

Although his brother didn’t overdose on cannabis, Mayor Polisena firmly believes marijuana-use too often leads to the abuse of stronger narcotics.

“I believe it’s a gateway drug,” Polisena explained. “Many experts, people smarter than me, also state that it’s a gateway drug.”

The incident shaped Mayor Polisena’s opinions on drug-use.

“I’ve never had a drink of alcohol, tried marijuana or smoked a cigarette,” Polisena said. “I’ve had a lot of close friends who died from drug overdoses and alcohol. We’re finally doing something for the opioids, but we should be doing a hell of a lot more.”

While Mayor Polisena has a well-known penchant for encouraging business development in town, he’s staunchly against allowing purveyors of cannabis open up shop in Johnston. As Johnston’s state senator, more than four mayoral terms ago, Polisena signed on as second co-sponsor of the Edward O. Hawkins and Thomas C. Slater Medical Marijuana Act, which passed in 2006. That bill immediately legalized medical marijuana in the Ocean State.

“I have no problem with medical marijuana, but I have a major problem with recreational marijuana,” he explained. “I feel like people will drive under the influence, and I believe that recreational marijuana can lead to other drugs. I don’t want to see it in the center of town for a few dollars.”

Cannabis businesses may target Johnston as next month’s election nears.

“I’m sure these folks will start dumping money in,” Polisena said. “I just don’t believe in it, but the people will get to decide. That’s why I love this country.”

Polisena posed the same question voters will be asked on the Nov. 8 ballot.

“Do you really want this kind of business in Johnston?” He asked. “I just hope no innocent family … becomes the victim of someone driving under the influence … It’s a little bit different (if) you’re drunk and you injure or kill somebody; there are tests. With marijuana, there’s nothing. Obviously youth can get a hold of alcohol. And obviously youth can get a hold of marijuana. I just hope no one gets maimed or killed … But we’ll go before the voters to let the voters decide. My opinion is we don’t need that kind of business in town.”


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