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Rhode Island Will License Medical Marijuana Shops, Overriding Veto

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The Rhode Island legislature overrode a gubernatorial veto of a medical marijuana law Tuesday afternoon by an overwhelming margin, paving the way for state-licensed medical marijuana shops to begin operating. The House voted 68-0 for the pot measure and the senate moved it minutes later by a 35-3 count.

Once the law takes effect, the state will be the first in the nation to have one officially licensed nonprofit center selling marijuana. Over time, the state will license further nonprofit dispensaries.

The bill got a boost in the state after a much publicized incident in which a pot dealer beat up a medical marijuana patient. Proponents of the bill argued that patients shouldn't have to deal with unregulated, unlicensed drug dealers, but deserved a more orderly system.

In March, New Mexico became the first state to grant a state license to a medical marijuana producer.

"We are seeing a historic shift to allowing state-licensed, regulated medical marijuana production and distribution," said Karen O'Keefe of the Marijuana Policy Project after the vote.

Legislators in Delaware, Illinois, Iowa, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Carolina and Pennsylvania are considering similar legislation. Arizona and Maine voters may soon vote on similar initiatives.

The Rhode Island bill's passage was only made possible by President Obama's announcement that his Justice Department would not raid medical marijuana dispensaries in states where they were following the law.

California's dispensaries operate legally in the state but don't have the kind of exclusive state license that the new Rhode Island shop will have.

Jesse Stout, executive director of the Rhode Island Patient Advocacy Coalition, which led the charge on the bill, said that state Rep. Tom Slater's announcement Saturday that he would himself begin using medical marijuana to treat his rapidly advancing cancer swayed the General Assembly. Slater, a Democrat, is the bill's sponsor.

The Rhode Island Department of Health will license one nonprofit "compassion center" in 2010 and two more in 2011. They will grow and distribute marijuana and provide it to an unlimited number of patients.

My book, This Is Your Country On Drugs: The Secret History of Getting High in America, is now out.

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