"People who have no options are going to get options at the compassion centers," DesRoches said. He'd like to see full legalization. "I think Rhode Island would like to be the first state on the East Coast to legalize, but this state has a habit of dragging its feet."
The Thomas C. Slater Compassion Center occupies a nondescript former postal service building a few blocks from the Statehouse. Patients must provide their medical marijuana authorization to gain entrance to the facility. To prevent theft, the reception window is bulletproof and the lobby wall contains a layer of Kevlar.
Inside, the main room is lined with glass cases that will soon hold jars of marijuana, separated into strains suited for conditions including nausea, anxiety, chronic pain and loss of appetite. Nearby are grow rooms with sophisticated lighting and temperature controls. The product cases and grow rooms are now empty — by law the dispensary can't possess marijuana until it receives its license. The first products will be bought from individuals already authorized to grow marijuana for patients.
"We want to be the industry standard," said Chris Reilly, a spokesman for Slater, which hopes to open within weeks. "This is a health care facility and we take our mission to help patients very seriously."
The other dispensaries are Summit Medical Compassion Center in Warwick and Greenleaf Compassionate Care Center in Portsmouth.
Two years ago, Gov. Lincoln Chafee put the dispensary licenses on hold after federal authorities warned the facilities could face criminal charges. Last year Chafee and lawmakers created new restrictions on the amount of marijuana the facilities can possess in an effort to avoid a clash with the federal government.
While federal prosecution remains a possibility, advocates think rigorous regulations — and changing public opinion — may dissuade the federal government from intervening.
"I would hope we're not very high on the priority list," said Seth Bock, Greenleaf's chief executive. "The tide is changing."