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PAWTUCKET, R.I. (WPRI) — A Rhode Island marijuana dispensary put up massive billboards along I-95 in Pawtucket on Thursday, in potential defiance of the state’s advertising ban that business owners have said is unfair.

The billboards for Mother Earth Wellness, a medical and recreational dispensary in Pawtucket located right next to the highway, depict the business name and logo and direct drivers to the nearest highway exit to get to the dispensary.

Rhode Island marijuana businesses are barred from advertising under a regulation connected to their license, which has been the case since the state only allowed medical sales.

But Massachusetts businesses are free to advertise in Rhode Island, and many have billboards on Rhode Island highways and roads, directing drivers to their Massachusetts dispensaries.

Joe Pakuris, owner of Mother Earth Wellness, declined to comment Thursday on his new billboards. But he has previously expressed frustration at his inability to advertise, which would let Rhode Islanders know his cannabis store exists. 

“The state of Rhode Island is currently allowing Massachusetts medical and recreational dispensaries advertising capabilities on billboards throughout each and every Rhode Island highway,” Pakuris testified at a State House hearing last month. “In addition, Massachusetts dispensaries are permitted to advertise in Rhode Island local television, print and even the jumbotron at the Rhode Island Civic Center. While ironically, Rhode Island dispensaries are not.”

There are multiple billboards for Massachusetts dispensaries within view of Mother Earth Wellness’ store location in Pawtucket.

Asked for comment Thursday, the Rhode Island Department of Business Regulation said they were aware of the billboards.

“DBR is aware of the billboard and is evaluating its compliance relative to current law and the medical marijuana regulations,” said spokesperson Matt Touchette. “The department has no further comment as this is an ongoing compliance matter.”

The DBR’s regulations state: “A licensee may not advertise in a manner which is observed by or targets the general public.”

The regulation explicitly says advertising on billboards is not allowed.

The battle over advertising has been a hot topic since Rhode Island legalized cannabis last May. The new law gave the power to write new regulations to a future three-member panel called the Cannabis Control Commission, which will eventually oversee and control the industry.

But Gov. Dan McKee took a year to name his picks to the commission, delaying the process and frustrating business owners. On Wednesday he nominated Kim Ahern, Robert Jacquard and Layi Oduyingbo to the commission. The appointments have to be confirmed by the state Senate.

In the absence of a Cannabis Control Commission, the RI House last week passed a bill that would let the Department of Business Regulation set up new advertising rules. The bill is now in the hands of the Senate.

Steph Machado (smachado@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter covering Providence, politics and more for 12 News. Connect with her on Twitter and on Facebook.

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