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A guide to the Rhode Island Senate’s plan to legalize cannabis

An employee arranges a display of cannabis at the Harborside dispensary in Oakland, Calif., on March 23, 2020.
An employee arranges a display of cannabis at the Harborside dispensary in Oakland, Calif., on March 23, 2020.David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

PROVIDENCE – Rhode Island could become the next state to legalize cannabis.

A year after Senate leadership declared a different legalization proposal dead on arrival, Senate President Dominick Ruggerio and Majority Leader Michael McCaffrey are co-sponsoring a bill that would legalize, tax, and regulate the recreational use of marijuana in the state.

The legislation, which legalizes the possession of up to one ounce of marijuana for anyone age 21 and over, still needs to be approved in both the Senate and the House and signed into law by Governor Dan McKee. But McKee has already expressed support for legalizing it, and House leaders have said they’re open to it.

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You can read the Senate’s full proposal here, and here’s a guide to the key points in the bill.

A 20 percent tax rate

Buyers would pay a 20 percent tax rate, which includes the traditional 7 percent sales tax, a 3 percent local sales tax, and a special 10 percent tax. The local tax would go to the community where the point of sale occurred. Some municipal leaders, like Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza have said they’d like to see cities and towns get a larger percentage of the tax because they’ll be the ones covering the cost of law enforcement.

A five-member committee will decide a lot

A committee would oversee four kinds of licenses: cultivator (between $100 and $20,000, depending on the size), manufacturer ($5,000), retail ($20,000), and testing ($5,000). The commission would be appointed by the governor with the advice and consent of the Senate. One member must have experience in public health, one must have experience in public safety, one must have a financial background, one must have experience in oversight or industry management, and one must have a background in legal, policy, or social justice issues related to a regulated industry.

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It’s opt-out, not opt-in for cities and towns

Under the legislation, cities and towns would have the option of asking voters whether they want retail licenses in their community. If the question doesn’t go on the ballot, retail licenses would automatically be legal. The commission is required approve retail licenses for at least three applicants in every municipality that allows it, and communities would be allowed one additional license for every 10,000 residents. If the bill is approved, Senate leaders said they could see retail shops opening by April 2022.

Serving size limits

Each serving size can be no greater than 10 milligrams, and the commission will set potency or dosing limitations of edible cannabis products.

Home plants in, public pot out

In a person’s primary residence, they can possess up to 10 ounces of cannabis and not more than six plants for personal use. They also can’t have more than a total of 12 plants. Consumption is prohibited in all public places, and unsealed containers are prohibited in cars.

An advantage for existing dispensaries

Rhode Island currently has three compassion centers, and six more are in the pipeline. Those facilities would have the ability to apply for retail licenses, and Senate leaders say they would likely be among the first to open because they’ll have an existing footprint. There are 28 entities that filed applications for six available licenses, and a lottery is expected to be held later this year to determine the winners.

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The bill is big on “equity”

If approved, the bill allows anyone with marijuana-related offenses to have their criminal record expunged free of charge. The bill also creates a “social equity assistance fund,” which could cover interest-free loans to certain license applicants.

Employees can join unions

The bill makes it clear that employees of businesses with a marijuana license in Rhode Island are not considered “farm laborers,” which means they are allowed to unionize.

What comes next?

McKee is expected to include a different legalization plan in his budget proposal later this week, but it’s considered more of a placeholder than a point of contention between the executive and legislative branches. Committee hearings are expected to be held in the coming weeks.


Dan McGowan can be reached at dan.mcgowan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @danmcgowan.