Skip to main content
Need assistance getting a cannabis business license? We can help. Schedule a Free Consultation
Need assistance getting a cannabis business license?  Schedule a Free Consultation

PROVIDENCE — Imagine buying your pasta and your pot without even looking for a new parking spot.

That could become a reality under a proposal by city leaders to dramatically expand where marijuana can be sold in Providence, allowing retail stores in well-known business districts such as Federal Hill, Wickenden Street or even Wayland Square, where cannabis shops are not currently allowed.

The aim is to increase Providence’s chances of getting a new retail location when state officials finally start issuing licenses under the 2022 law that legalized recreational marijuana. Private businesses typically need to have a location secured before applying for a license to sell, and some have approached city leaders to point out there are very few places where it’s allowed under city zoning law.

“Rhode Island, in general, has been a little bit behind the curve in terms of putting ourselves at an economic advantage when it comes to legalization,” City Council President Rachel Miller said in an interview with the Globe. “People are still just driving over the border to Massachusetts to do their shopping.”

It’s not yet clear whether the proposed zoning change, sponsored by Miller and Councilor Miguel Sanchez, will have the support of the full council. Mayor Brett Smiley has not yet weighed in on the proposal.

As it stands, recreational marijuana can be sold in Rhode Island only at previously-licensed medical dispensaries, a measure that was put in place to bridge the gap until the new state Cannabis Control Commission gets up and running. That group will ultimately decide who gets 24 new licenses, half of which are slated to go to social equity applicants or worker co-ops, in the coming months.

In Providence, an existing zoning ordinance allows dispensaries only in a specific industrial zone, in part because of the large grow operations that have historically been connected to those businesses. The Slater Center on Corliss Street, Providence’s only dispensary, is in such a zone.

But the proposed zoning change would expand the allowed locations to downtown and two types of commercial districts, dramatically expanding the options where businesses can set up shop. (Grow operations would still be restricted to industrial zones.)

The proposal would favor social equity and worker co-ops, allowing them to open “by right” — or without special permission — in the D-1 (downtown), C-3 (heavy commercial), and C-2 (general commercial) zones. Other retailers could open by right in the D-1 and C-3 districts, but would need to ask for a special use permit to open in C-2.

Those C-2 districts include Federal Hill, the section of Providence known primarily for Italian restaurants on Atwells Avenue, which is also host to hookah lounges and nightclubs.

It also includes Wickenden Street, a bustling street in Fox Point on the city’s East Side, full of restaurants, bars, coffee shops, boutiques, and at least one tattoo parlor.

Wayland Square, another C-2 district with upscale boutiques and high-end chains such as LuLuLemon, could also be eligible for a pot shop. Cannabis stores can’t be located within 500 feet of a school, however, which would make a chunk of the square ineligible because of the Croft School, which has two locations on Wayland Avenue.

There are also some C-2 zones on parts of Broad Street and Elmwood Avenue in South Providence.

So-called “neighborhood” commercial districts known as C-1 would not be eligible to host a cannabis shop under the proposal, nor could stores be located in residential zones. (The city is in the middle of updating its comprehensive plan, which could change which neighborhoods are in which zone.)

Thayer Street, the busy commercial way full of college students that cuts through Brown University’s campus, would also not be eligible for a cannabis shop under this proposal, since the street is in an educational institutional zone (I-2), not one of the commercial zones.

Cannabis on display at Mother Earth Wellness in Pawtucket. Recreational marijuana can currently be sold at pre-existing medical dispensaries, but the state will eventually be issuing 24 new retail licenses. (Matthew Healey for The Boston Globe)Matthew Healey for The Boston Globe

The proposal, which will be heard by the City Plan Commission on Tuesday, is likely to get some pushback. Sharon Steele, the president of the Jewelry District Association, told the Globe she’s staunchly against having a cannabis store in that neighborhood. The Jewelry District is in the downtown D-1 zone, and could be eligible for a store under the proposal.

“This is becoming the center for life sciences,” Steele said. “The antithesis to that would be locating cannabis in the Jewelry District.”

Steele said she is mainly worried about public safety and quality of life, with a concern that there would be more people smoking in public in the neighborhood if there was a cannabis store.

Rick Simone, the president of the Federal Hill Commerce Association, said he needs to ask more questions about the proposal, especially whether the city would enforce Health Department rules about smoking near restaurants. The Hill has a lot of outdoor dining, and there are already complaints about the aroma of smoke, he said.

“I think it would be challenging for Federal Hill,” he told the Globe, adding that he needs to speak to businesses before forming an opinion.

But Miller is optimistic about getting support for the zoning change. The existing law is outdated, based on when only medical marijuana was legal. Without an update, there are few places in Providence where a store could be located.

“I think that attitudes, social attitudes, on marijuana consumption have changed dramatically,” Miller said. “It’s very different today than it would be 15 years ago to have this conversation.”

Providence will be essentially competing with four other municipalities — Lincoln, North Providence, Johnston and Central Falls — to become home to a cannabis store once the new licenses are in play. That’s because the 2022 legalization law spreads the 24 licenses through six geographic zones across the state. Each zone can have four stores, including at least one social-equity application and one worker co-op.

Municipalities receive 3 percent of all recreational sales within their borders.

Andre Dev, a Providence resident who is part of a worker co-op called PVD Flowers, is planning to apply for one of the licenses whenever the Cannabis Control Commission opens up applications. He noted that co-ops, which are majority-owned by workers, have a financial disadvantage over other applicants who can raise capital from investors to secure real estate before applying for the license.

“What we’re hoping this bill will do is make that process a little easier, especially for the under-capitalized,” he said. He first brought the issue of Providence’s relative lack of viable store locations to the councilors. His group also is helping other worker co-ops form.

Dev noted there could be some parking issues with locating a store on Federal Hill, and said “we definitely have to be thinking ahead on the impact on other local businesses.”

But he also said allowing stores in traditional business districts could be a boon to other stores, and would also make cannabis more accessible to residents who use public transit.

At the most, Providence could get four new stores under the state law, though they could also end up in the other four towns in Providence’s designated zone. Miller said she is not aiming for a certain number of stores, but to give Providence a slight advantage.

“By doing this, we’re making sure Providence isn’t left out,” she said.


Steph Machado can be reached at steph.machado@globe.com. Follow her @StephMachado.

Request a Free Consultation