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R.I. towns would have to vote to opt out under marijuana bill

“Every community is different,” Middletown Town Council president says. “We just didn’t want pot shops in town.”

Flowering marijuana plants at Sira Naturals, a marijuana cultivation facility in Milford, Mass.Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff

PROVIDENCE — Not every town is high on the idea of legalizing recreational marijuana for adults. But to opt out under the “Rhode Island Cannabis Act” introduced this week, towns would have to put the question on the ballot in November.

Take Middletown, for example. Last year, the Town Council passed an ordinance that prohibits marijuana stores, cultivation centers, and testing facilities, while allowing for the growing of medical marijuana by licensed patients and caregivers. The ordinance says marijuana-related businesses could have “secondary impacts” such as increased crime, decreased property values, traffic, and odor complaints.

“Every community is different, every council is different,” Middletown Town Council President Paul M. Rodrigues said Thursday. “We just didn’t want pot shops in town.”


But lawmakers say that decision would not be up to the Town Council, under the legislation introduced in the House and Senate on Tuesday.

Cities and towns would have to hold referendums in November asking voters if they want to opt out from the bills to legalize recreational marijuana for adults. The Nov. 8 ballot items would ask voters: “Shall cannabis licenses for businesses involved in the cultivation, manufacture, laboratory testing, and for the retail sale of adult recreational use cannabis be issued in the city (or town)?”

A slide from a PowerPoint presentation outlines the process for local governments to opt out under legislation to legalize adult-use marijuana in Rhode Island.Handout

If the voters decide the answer is “no,” then those cities and towns would not be eligible for any of the revenue derived from marijuana sales. The legislation would apply a 3 percent local excise tax to all marijuana purchases.

Rodrigues said those who testified before the Town Council were against allowing recreational marijuana stores in Middletown.

“Based on some of the testimony and input from residents, we wanted to be able to regulate where things went or don’t go at all,” he said. “We didn’t want them popping up all over the place.”


Rodrigues said he realizes the town would miss out on the marijuana tax revenue. “But not everything is about money. Sometimes the welfare and safety of the community outweighs the dollars.”

Still, Rodrigues said he realizes some residents feel differently about the issue, and he has no problem with putting the question to the voters in a November referendum. “For something of that magnitude, let the people decide,” he said.

Senator Joshua Miller, a Cranston Democrat, and Representative Scott A. Slater, a Providence Democrat, introduced identical bills to legalize recreational marijuana. And Miller said that while some communities have passed ordinances to bar recreational marijuana shops, those towns would still have to put the question to voters in November.

In its list of legislative priorities, the Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns asked for municipalities to be allowed to opt out of allowing retail dispensaries through of the city or town council rather than placing the question on the ballot for voters to decide.

When Massachusetts first allowed recreational marijuana sales in 2018, at least 189 of the state’s 351 municipalities barred retail marijuana stores and, in most cases, cultivation facilities and other cannabis operations. At the time, 59 of the local bans were indefinite, while 130 were temporary moratoriums designed to buy local officials time to set up marijuana zoning rules.

But Miller predicted that most communities in Rhode Island would favor the idea. “If anything, we get feedback that the initial round of licenses is not enough,” he said. “Some of the larger cities and towns feel it may appropriate to have more than one license in their city or town.”


The legislation allows up to 33 retail licenses distributed in six zones statewide, including nine compassion centers that could be hybrid recreational and medical retailers.

All ballot questions must be certified 90 days before the election, which means the deadline is Aug. 10 this year, according to the secretary of state’s office.

If communities with medical marijuana businesses vote no in November, they would have to give up those sites, Miller said.

Slide details how many retailer locations would be allowed under proposed legislation to legalize recreational adult-use marijuana in Rhode Island.Handout

In Newport, the City Council enacted a moratorium on marijuana sales last year.

At-large City Council member Lynn Underwood Ceglie said Newport officials are trying to figure out where retail marijuana establishments would be located in town. The downtown area wouldn’t be able to accommodate the traffic and parking requirements that could come with a marijuana shop, she said. And while the city’s North End could handle more traffic and parking demands, the city is trying to develop that area as “an incubator for the blue economy,” she said.

“I’m not opposed to it, but I’m not sure it’s a good fit for Newport,” Ceglie said. “Right now, I am sort of neutral on it. For me, it’s more about the location of it.”

Another concern, she said, is that marijuana remains illegal under federal law and Newport is home to a US Navy base and the US Naval War College.


“We have things to consider,” Ceglie said. “Our relationship with the federal government and the Navy is very important.”

Miller said the legislation contains a “carve out” for federal contractors such as Electric Boat. And the bill says, “Nothing contained in this chapter shall be construed to require employers to accommodate the use or possession of cannabis, or being under the influence of cannabis, in any workplace.”

In 2017, the Lincoln Town Council voted for a resolution opposing the legalization of recreational marijuana.

“I don’t think people want to see marijuana stores in the community,” Town Council President Keith E. Macksoud said. “My main concern is the safety of the children and also impaired drivers and not having it as a destination.”

If the question is placed on the ballot in November, he predicted Lincoln voters would “shoot it down.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island has objected to ordinances that Lincoln and Smithfield passed placing restrictions on medical marijuana. The ACLU sued the Town of Smithfield, saying the town had tried to undermine the state’s medical marijuana law, and the town agreed to repeal the ordinance as part of a settlement in 2019.

On Thursday, ACLU of Rhode Island executive director Steven Brown said the group will be keeping an eye on the latest marijuana legislation and the local approval process.

“It’s a very complex piece of legislation that addresses a wide range of issues that have civil liberties implications,” Brown said. “We will be reviewing the bill a lot more carefully in the next few days.”


Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.