Ian Donnis: Matt Santacroce, welcome to The Public's Radio.

Matt Santacroce: Happy to be here.

Ian Donnis: Now that recreational cannabis is legal in Rhode Island. How do you expect that to affect the level of usage by Rhode Islanders?

Matt Santacroce: So I think that, you know, by and large Rhode Islanders at this point are familiar with cannabis and cannabis products, either through the Medical program, which has been in existence for many, many years at this point, or maybe familiar with a Massachusetts retail offering. And so, you know, at least at the outset, I don't think that we expect at the population level, cannabis use to increase noticeably. It might be the case that people are changing their behavior from, you know, driving to a Massachusetts outlet to something that's more convenient to them right here in Rhode Island, which is great. Or maybe folks are transitioning out of the Medical program into the adult use program, for whatever reason, but generally speaking, we're not expecting to see a large explosion in overall usage.

Ian Donnis: As the state's top cannabis regulator, what are your top concerns or what has been keeping you up as the state has moved into the actual sales of recreational cannabis?

Matt Santacroce: So, um, you know, I'm happy to say that it's been a very smooth implementation. And I think that we've got, you know, a couple of really key reasons for that. One is that the legislature, leadership and the sponsors of the bill, Josh Miller on the Senate side, and Scott Slater on the House side, got together and worked with the administration on an implementation framework that's logical, practical, rational. And that was, by and large, something that we knew we could execute on. We've gotten from bill signing to sale starting more quickly than any other state, certainly in this time zone and possibly in the country. I'm very happy about that. And thank the legislature for setting that up for success. You know, I think as we monitor the situation over the course of the next three, six, nine and 12 months, one of the things we're going to be really looking out for is really the supply and demand, and how those forces kind of balance each other out at the market level. You know, we've known for a while now that we've got sort of an abundance of supply side, licensees on the cultivation side of things. And until this year, only three places to buy at retail, now we've got six, five of which are selling for adult use, which is, which is great. And so we're really gonna be paying attention to sort of supply and demand. And now that kind of shifts over the long term.

Ian Donnis: In terms of the number of outlets where cannabis can be sold on the recreational market, the state has plans for up to 33 shops across the state, how would you sketch sketch out the timeline under which that will happen?

Matt Santacroce:So what we're really focused on right now is, is the ongoing transition of the medical licensees into the hybrid retail and cultivation status, as you know. And so you know, that that sort of matches out at nine, which I think you'll see, at some point next year, for as far as the additional 24 goes, the method and the timing of the allocation of those licenses, is almost entirely left to that Cannabis Control Commission to decide. And, and so, you know, we'll be looking in the new year to, to that body to really make some decisions about those new licenses.

Ian Donnis: What do you think is the most important information for consumers to know as they consider buying and using recreational cannabis and Rodan?

Matt Santacroce: So I think it's important to know that the products that are available to retailers today are at retailers today, excuse me, are safe, well regulated products that have all been rigorously tested and are licensed testing laboratories for things like yeast, mold, pesticides, heavy metal, that sort of thing. And so maybe unlike an illicit market transaction or or even some homegrown products, I think folks can feel comfortable that we're looking at safe products that have been sort of traced from seed to sale here in our state. And that and that, you know, the regulators and the retailers alike are both mutually aligned on making that be the case.

Ian Donnis: And whether people can use cannabis in public depends on the laws of particular communities. Yeah. What do you say to critics in terms of how cannabis is a mind altering substance, there are some concerns about law enforcement about people driving while impaired? Are you convinced that the positive effects of cannabis legalization will outweigh the negative effects?

Matt Santacroce: So as the regulator I'm not, you know, really here to weigh in on the science necessarily. I think that this is an emerging market. Even though we have had some states with recreational markets in place for close to a decade. There's still a real need for rigorous public health and scientific research at the largely at the federal level is where the funding typically comes for those sorts of things. To better understand the short and long term effects of, of cannabis usage, both, you know, by the product types, and by the overall levels, in terms of, you know, the overall public health and public safety, I think that the, the legislature and the bill that was passed set up a very important mechanism through which some of the revenues that will be generated by these sales will be directed back into things like prevention, public health campaigns and education and awareness campaigns. And so I think, you know, as we keep an eye on how this goes in Rhode Island, that's going to be something that folks are really looking at.

Ian Donnis: How do you see the outlook for the social equity component of legalization, the idea that some licenses will be reserved and some assistance provided for people who were affected by the adverse effects of the drug war to try and get into the business? As I reported earlier this year, there's some big questions about whether that program will work as designed. How do you see the outlook?

Matt Santacroce: You know, it's a critically important piece of the legislation that was signed into law earlier this year. And I applaud everybody that worked on it, it's a big deal. And it matters a whole heck of a lot. The specifics of it, though, are going to be something that the Commission looks really hard at something that the advisory board that the law also sets up will have a big and important role to play in hammering out. And so we'll kind of keep an eye on that as it goes forward and look forward to those getting off the ground.

Ian Donnis: There are some people who champion the use of psychedelic drugs as part of therapy. Do you as a student of evolving drug policy in Rhode Island, do you think that we'll see other drugs legalized or decriminalized in the future?

Matt Santacroce: So I'm personally fascinated by that. Professionally, we're trying to get this right. First things first.

Ian Donnis: Matt Santacroce, head of Rhode Island's office of cannabis regulation, and deputy interim director of the State Department of Business regulation. Thank you for joining us.

Matt Santacroce: Thank you for having me, Ian.

Ian Donnis: Next up, our guest is Andrew Schiff from the Rhode Island Community Food Bank. Welcome back to The Public's Radio, Andrew.

Andrew Schiff: Thanks for having me back.

Ian Donnis: Hunger was a serious problem. As we know, even before concerns about inflation came front and center. How has inflation aggravated the situation in Rhode Island?

Andrew Schiff: So right now, 1000s of families in Rhode Island are struggling to afford adequate food. They are turning to food pantries for help to meet their basic food needs in record numbers.

Ian Donnis: And how has the food bank responded to the impact of inflation? I imagine, you know, when you're looking to spend money, it goes not as far as it did before. So how has the food bank altered its response?

Andrew Schiff: Well, we've had to purchase more food in order to meet this high need. And it's complicated by the fact that even for us when we're purchasing food, food costs more, so it costs more, we're buying more, it's led to higher costs for the food bank. And we've been turning to the public for help.

Ian Donnis: When we talk about the problem of hunger in Rhode Island, a state of about 1 million people, how many people are at risk for hunger?

Andrew Schiff: Well we got help to answer that question through a survey that was done by the Rhode Island Life Index. It's an initiative of the Brown University School of Public Health and Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Rhode Island. And what they found in their survey is one out of every three households reported that they could not afford adequate food. It's shocking to see so many people struggling.

Ian Donnis:Absolutely. And we've talked before about how the contemporary network of food banks really developed after a recession in America in the early 1980s. It was hoped that those would be a temporary response, but they've multiplied due to the magnitude of the need. What would it take to make a more impactful response in reducing hunger in Rhode Island and America?

Andrew Schiff: Well, we learned a lot during the last two and a half years. There were initiatives that were part of the response to the pandemic that were found to be very effective in preventing hunger. One example is the expanded Child Tax Credit, it reduced child hunger and child poverty in the United States. Unfortunately, that has ended. We'd like to see the Congress bring it back. Other initiatives that were effective were making school meals available to all kids, School Lunch and School Breakfast available to all children. That was true during the pandemic. Unfortunately, that program ended in September. And then the final thing: for years, the Food Bank has argued that we need higher benefit levels for people receiving the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, SNAP. And that was done during the pandemic, benefits were increased by an emergency allotment. We're worried because that allotment will end when the public health emergency ends, likely this spring.

Ian Donnis: How has federal support for fighting hunger waxed and waned over the years? And where do you see it going from here?

Andrew Schiff: So we saw tremendous support for our work for government programs that provide nutrition assistance during the pandemic. And I think that the question is, you know, do we (based on the success of those programs) , do we have the political will to continue them? I don't know if that's going to be the case. I just feel like this is an issue that should have just broad support, both nationally, and in the state.

Ian Donnis: What is the greatest need that you have at the food bank right now?

Andrew Schiff: So our biggest need is for help with purchasing food, which means that we need funds. And we have been helped by the state with ARPA funds that came to us through the Rhode Island Foundation, that will all go for food purchase. And, you know, we are continually trying to remind the public that this is not just an issue at Thanksgiving time at holiday time. We're dealing with the need all year round.

Ian Donnis: Certainly. And if our listeners want to try to help the food bank, what are the best ways that they can do that?

Andrew Schiff: By going to our website,  RI food bank dot org. Not only will you be able to give, but also that's where we have our latest report, the status report on hunger, folks can read it and understand where things stand right now.

Ian Donnis: In closing, we know that there's a considerable waste of food in America. Traditionally, supermarkets. retailers have made some surplus of food available to food banks, but they've tried to get more efficient and eliminate waste. How has that affected what you do?

Andrew Schiff: Yeah, so this has been a trend over 10 years, the supermarket industry, to their credit, has gotten much better at eliminating waste. They're giving less surplus food to food banks. That's true not just in Rhode Island, but across the country. And it has made us more dependent on using donor dollars to purchase food to meet the high need.

Ian Donnis: Andrew Schiff from the Rhode Island Community Food Bank. Thank you for joining us.

Andrew Schiff: Thank you