PROVIDENCE — After failing to agree on competing proposals last year, the House and Senate on Tuesday unveiled legislation to legalize and regulate recreational marijuana for adults in Rhode Island, beginning Oct. 1.
With support from legislative leaders, Senator Joshua Miller, a Cranston Democrat, and Representative Scott A. Slater, a Providence Democrat, introduced identical 115-page bills that would legalize the sale and possession of up to 1 ounce of cannabis for those age 21 and up.
The bills would allow people to keep up to 10 ounces of marijuana at home for personal use, and they’d let people grow a small amount of marijuana at home.
“The time for Rhode Island to move forward with cannabis legalization is now,” said Miller, chairman of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee. “This historic shift in public policy will create a vibrant new marketplace in our state and end the failed practice of prohibition, which has caused such harm to so many in our communities. To help address those past wrongs, and to ensure all Rhode Islanders have the opportunity to share the economic benefits associated with legalization, equity is a central focus of this legislation.”
The drive to legalize adult-use recreational marijuana stalled in the General Assembly last year in part because the Senate voted for a bill that would create a new Cannabis Control Commission while Governor Daniel J. McKee’s administration wanted to keep regulation with the Department of Business Regulation.
This legislation creates an independent three-member cannabis control commission, which would eventually also assume oversight of medical marijuana, which is overseen by the Department of Business Regulation. It also creates a cannabis advisory board and a cannabis office within DBR.
“This is not a model that we made up,” Miller said. “This is a model that’s working very well in New York and Massachusetts.”
Legislators said McKee is aware of the regulatory structure in the new legislation, but the governor’s office had no immediate comment on the bills.
Eighteen states, including Massachusetts and Connecticut, have enacted legislation to regulate cannabis for non-medical use, and 38 states, including Rhode Island, have legislation that allows for the medical use of cannabis, according to the National Conference on State Legislatures.
“Realistically, recreational cannabis is already here,” Miller told reporters during a briefing. “It has been legalized in both Massachusetts and Connecticut, making it more accessible than ever for Rhode Islanders. Right now, we are incurring all the downside of the status quo while passing up the many benefits of a strong regulatory framework on equity, public health, and public safety.”
So that’s why it’s important to act now, he said.
“If we don’t do this sooner rather than later, it’s too easy to go buy marijuana in Attleboro or Fall River,” he said. “It really needs to be done now before it’s too late and those habits are set in stone.”
Slater said he has been proposing marijuana legalization for 10 years, and the state has been studying the issue for years. “We now can look to our neighboring states’ experiences and see that taxing and regulating cannabis makes sense,” he said.
The bill imposes a 10 percent state cannabis excise tax in addition to the 7 percent sales tax, plus a 3 percent local tax for the municipality where the sale takes place. Miller said the most recent estimate is that the measure would provide the state with $20 million in revenue in the first year.
The proposal allows up to 33 retail licenses distributed in six zones statewide, including nine compassion centers that could potentially be hybrid recreational and medical retailers.
In September, advocates rallied at the State House, 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.
“I’m especially proud that we have made a very deliberate effort to address social equity through this bill,” Slater said. “We have to recognize the harm that prohibition has done to communities, particularly minorities and poor, urban neighborhoods, and ensure that those communities get the support they need to benefit from legalization.”
The legislation uses licensing fees and penalties to fund technical assistance and grants to applicants and communities that have been impacted, and reserves one license in each of the six districts for a “social equity licensee” and another in each district for a co-op.
Also, the legislation creates a process for people to request expungement of prior convictions for misdemeanor and felony cannabis possession for amounts that have been decriminalized.
Advocacy groups praised the social equity provisions of the bill but called for legislators to allow for automatic expungement of past marijuana convictions, as opposed to making people submit written requests and go through a bureaucratic process.
The Formerly Incarcerated Union of RI, the Working Families Party, Reclaim RI, and the Marijuana Policy Project applauded the bill for including “a first-in-the-nation reservation of retail licenses for worker-owned cooperatives,” saying that would “benefit people disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs.”
But the groups noted that states such as California and Illinois provide automatic expungement for past marijuana convictions, and they said that policy is less costly to state government.
“Rhode Island has taken a historic step toward becoming the first state to reserve licenses for worker-owned cooperatives,” said Miguel Martínez Youngs, organizing director of Reclaim RI. “Co-ops and social equity ensure that the benefits of legalization go to those who suffered the most under prohibition and not just to Big Weed.
But, he said, “Without automatic expungement, we will still be punishing those people for something that isn’t even a crime anymore. We look forward to working with legislators to amend the bill.”
Cherie Cruz, co-founder of the Formerly Incarcerated Union of RI, said, “The criminalization of cannabis has done harm to so many families in our state, and we are grateful to see the legislature moving forward with a more sensible policy of legalization.”
But, she said, “There is no excuse to deny automatic relief from past arrest records and criminal convictions to tens of thousands of Rhode Islanders who have been victims of this failed war on cannabis. If we’re going to repair some of the damage that has been done, we have to have automatic expungement.”
During the briefing, Miller said, “Once we get together with the (attorney general)’s office and the judiciary, we envision it being virtually automatic. The way we envision is it is that basically if it’s online you would be able to push a button. If you’re not able to go online, you would be able to submit a single page.”
Legislative leaders said the proposal is only the starting point and is bound to undergo changes.
“I want to emphasize that the bill introduced today is not the final product — rather, it is the beginning of the public process of legalizing cannabis for recreational use in Rhode Island,” said House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi, a Warwick Democrat. “We welcome input from the public as to whether or how we should implement recreational usage, and I expect robust discussions with House membership as well.”
Legislative leaders talked about the possibility of addressing the marijuana legislation during a special fall session, but that never materialized.
“We’ve been working hard since the end of last session to establish consensus on the details,” said Senate Majority Leader Michael J. McCaffrey, a Warwick Democrat. “But our efforts to address the issue have been going on for many years, during which time our neighboring states have already made this move ahead of us. Rhode Island is now behind them from a competitive standpoint, since it’s fairly easy for most Rhode Islanders to cross the state line to make a legal purchase.”
As a result, cannabis is already widely available to Rhode Islanders, but the state is missing out on the revenue, McCaffrey said.
“With this bill, we will create jobs, revenue and control in our own state, and help address some of the inequities that have resulted from prohibition,” he said. “I look forward to working with my colleagues, stakeholders and the public to ensure that we take the careful, nuanced and equitable approach we need to transform this economic sector.”