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Fed up, Mother Earth Wellness pot dispensary owner is taking on RI's advertising ban

The Providence Journal

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It’s not quite the Boston Tea Party, but I’m cheering on Joe Pakuris, a Pawtucket businessman who couldn’t take it anymore, and I don’t blame him.

What he did was actually more dramatic than dumping tea.

He put up billboards on Interstate 95 telling the world to come to his cannabis dispensary, the biggest in the state.

Why is this a defiant act?

Because there's a weed ad ban here. For some hare-brained reason, the state allowed cannabis sales but didn’t allow stores to promote themselves.

Yet dispensaries in Massachusetts and Connecticut can. In fact, every day, from his Mother Earth Wellness dispensary, Joe Pakuris looks at an Interstate 95 billboard for a Massachusetts cannabis store and wonders how many cars are zipping by his place to buy across the border.

So, a few days ago, he finally put up his own billboard, on his property, which borders the highway.

“Mother Wellness,” it says. “21+. Next Exit. Dispensary.”

If state regulatory folks think he has violated the no-advertising rule, Joe insists he’s done no such thing.

His new billboard, he says, is not advertising at all. It’s just another store sign, no different, he says, than the one above his entrance.

“Advertising,” he explains, “would say I have the cheapest price or best quality. All I’m doing is what I’ve already done – the same thing that’s on my building.”

But he won’t deny he’s frustrated at the no-ad ban. He and others have been begging the state to allow advertising. So far, no go.

The result? Joe says that every day, many folks come into Mother Earth saying they hadn’t realized recreational cannabis was for sale in Rhode Island until friends told them. They’d been going to Massachusetts instead.

Joe guesses business for the state’s seven dispensaries and many suppliers could improve by a significant 30% if ads were permitted.

Two weeks ago, the House passed a bill allowing weed ads, but it’s not law yet. And last week, a full year after recreational dispensaries were approved, the governor at last nominated three members to form a Cannabis Regulatory Board, needed before ads can happen.

But the nominees are yet to be ratified.

Joe, 42, is a working-class guy who for years ran Kitchen & Countertop Center of New England in a Pawtucket mill with his co-owner Ed Keegan, also 42.

The two beat out other applicants for the area’s single cannabis dispensary license because their mill was perfect, with 35,000 extra square feet for a full “vertical” business, meaning they grow it, create it and sell it.

It’s an impressive operation, with growing rooms, a “Breaking Bad” extraction lab and a gourmet kitchen making edibles. The store itself is striking, with marble display counters, waterfalls over glass, huge flatscreens and cool lighting on high brick walls.

But the ad ban, Joe says, is hurting badly. He knows it will eventually happen, but he feels it’s nuts how long it’s taking the government to get it done.

As for the state’s side? I tried to ask them to explain themselves, but they wouldn’t talk to me.

I called the office of the Deputy Director of the Department of Business Regulation Matt Santacroce, who among other things oversees the Office of Cannabis Regulation. When DBR spokesman Matt Touchette got back to me, I told him candidly I wanted to press Santacroce on how to speed up the cannabis advertising thing.

Touchette understood, then asked me to email questions and he’d get them answered.

I wrote back saying I’d prefer getting Santacroce’s response in a live or phone interview, and maybe “hold his feet to the fire” on this.

Big mistake. I think that scared them.

“DBR respectfully declines this interview request,” Touchette wrote back.

Oh well. I tried.

Let the record show Joe Pakuris insists he’s not violating the ad ban – the billboard in his eyes is just a big sign on his property stating the name of his business.

Still, I think there should be consequences.

But not against Joe Pakuris of Mother Earth Wellness. He’s doing a favor for Rhode Island by trying to help a taxpaying industry compete.

The consequences should be for the state officials still getting in the way of that.


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