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R.I. lawmakers call for marijuana legalization to help those impacted by War on Drugs

“We can’t reverse the harm of the War on Drugs, but we can start to repair it,” the chairwoman of the RI Legislative Black and Latino Caucus says

Senator Tiara Mack, a Providence Democrat, speaks during a news conference at the State House regarding proposed legislation to legalize recreational marijuana.Edward Fitzpatrick

PROVIDENCE — Legislators joined a progressive group outside the State House on Wednesday, calling for Rhode Island to ensure that marijuana legalization benefits poor and working-class communities of color that bore the brunt of the War on Drugs.

The General Assembly concluded this year’s legislative session on July 1 without passing one of the competing bills that would legalize recreation marijuana for adults in Rhode Island. Legislative leaders have talked about returning for a special fall session to address marijuana legalization and other unresolved issues, but it’s not certain that will happen.

“If we choose to legalize cannabis in Rhode Island without full restorative justice for the Black, brown and low-income Rhode Islanders who were targeted and imprisoned because of the racist War on Drugs policies, we have failed,” Representative Leonela Felix said.


Felix, a Pawtucket Democrat, estimated that there is now a 70 percent chance the legislature will not return in the fall. But, she said, “I am hoping we actually can come in and we can get this done before the end of the year.”

Senator Tiara Mack, a Providence Democrat, noted that Massachusetts, Connecticut and other states have legalized recreational marijuana.

“We are lagging behind other states in our area,” she said. “By bringing in the revenue that we are losing right now to our neighboring states, Rhode Island will be able to afford a lot of the critical programs to make sure we are able to take care of every single Rhode Islander.”

Along with a coalition of other groups, Reclaim Rhode Island is calling for the Assembly to pass marijuana legislation that would include:

  • Automatic expungement of prior marijuana-related offenses
  • Waiving of pending and outstanding penalties, fines, and court fees for marijuana-related charges
  • A 50-percent allocation of new licenses for “social equity” applicants, which includes those directly impacted or living in communities disproportionately impacted by past marijuana prosecutions
  • A 25-percent allocation of new licenses for worker-owned cooperatives
  • Requiring “labor peace agreements” so that workers can organize unions

Representative David Morales, a Providence Democrat, said more than a dozen states have legalized cannabis. “But they do it in a way that ignores the needs of the individuals, of the communities, that have been impacted by the War on Drugs,” he said. “We have seen cannabis legalized in ways that cater to the needs of big businesses and corporate lobbyists.”


So it’s important that Rhode Island take the lead in passing a law that contains “social equity” provisions, he said.

“It’s no longer a question of if – it is now a question of when we legalize cannabis,” Morales said. “When we legalize cannabis, we are going to do it in a just way. We are going to ensure that we expunge records of cannabis offenses. We are going to ensure that there are worker cooperative opportunities.”

Rhode Island needs to legalize marijuana in a manner “that allows us to generate the necessary revenue for our state to move forward and be competitive,” he said, talking about the need to invest in public schools and health care.

Representative Karen Alzate, a Pawtucket Democrat who is chairwoman of the Rhode Island Legislative Black and Latino Caucus, said big corporations are taking over the marijuana industry in other parts of the country.

“Here in Rhode Island, we have an opportunity to pass legalization that would ensure that working-class people get their fair share,” she said. “We can’t reverse the harm of the War on Drugs, but we can start to repair it by passing automatic expungement and waiving all related fines, fees, and court debt. This bold legalization plan offers us the chance to turn a new leaf for the Ocean State, and it’s time we take it.”


Tyler Brown, a Reclaim Rhode Island organizer, called for the legislation to provide social equity applicants with capital through no-interest and forgivable loans, plus business training and support.

The Senate proposal for legalizing marijuana would would create a new Cannabis Control Commission to approve licenses and oversee the market, but Governor Daniel J. McKee favors a proposal that would keep those regulatory powers with the state Department of Business Regulation. Reclaim Rhode Island has no formal position on that point of contention.

In addition to Reclaim Rhode Island, the coalition backing the social justice principles includes Black Lives Matter RI PAC, the Yes We Cannabis RI Coalition, the Formerly Incarcerated Union of RI, and United Food and Commercial Workers Local 328.

After Wednesday’s news conference, Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio, a North Providence Democrat, issued a statement, noting that in June the Senate passed a marijuana legalization bill, which the House did not approve.

“Now Senator Joshua Miller and Majority Leader Michael McCaffrey are working together with the House towards consensus legislation,” Ruggerio said. “The Senate-passed bill creates a competitive cannabis economy with low barriers to entry and includes very strong social justice provisions, such as financing for individuals impacted by prohibition and a process for expungement of past criminal offenses that is as close to automatic as practical.”

House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi, a Warwick Democrat, issued a statement, saying, “The House and Senate are continuing to have productive discussions about the significant policy implications associated with legalizing marijuana for personal use, including, but not limited to, some of the issues raised today at the press conference.”


Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at Follow him @FitzProv.