PROVIDENCE — Revisions to bills legalizing recreational marijuana in Rhode Island would make the expungement of past convictions for marijuana possession automatic — a key request of advocates, the sponsors of the legislation announced Tuesday.
A proposed amendment to the legislation also would push the start date of legalized adult recreational marijuana sales from Oct. 1 to Dec. 1. And the amendment would get rid of fees charged to patients and caregivers for registration in the state’s medical marijuana program.
Senator Joshua Miller, a Cranston Democrat, and Representative Scott A. Slater, a Providence Democrat, unveiled those changes as the House and Senate committee prepare to vote on the bills on Wednesday, teeing it up for a vote by the full House and Senate on May 24.
On Tuesday, Governor Daniel J. McKee said he looks forward to “reviewing the final bill that comes out of the General Assembly and signing legalization of adult use cannabis into law.”
“We thank the General Assembly for their collaboration on this legislation including working out the separation of powers concerns our administration had expressed,” the governor’s office said in a statement. “While this bill is different than the governor’s original proposal, it does accomplish his priorities of making sure legalization is equitable, controlled, and safe.”
Rhode Island would become the 19th state to legalize adult recreational marijuana, including Massachusetts and Connecticut. A total of 38 states, including Rhode Island, have legislation that allows for the medical use of cannabis, according to the National Conference on State Legislatures.
“The amended bill is a collaborative effort to address concerns about protecting medical use, ensuring fair governance, and recognizing that we cannot make this transition without taking action to make whole the communities and individuals who have been punished for decades under prohibition,” said Miller, chair of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee.
The bills would allow people age 21 and older 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 bills impose 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.
The bills also make no changes to the number of cannabis retailers allowed in Rhode Island: 33, distributed in six zones statewide, including the nine compassion centers that could become hybrid medical/recreational 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.
When the legislation was first introduced in March, advocacy groups 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 advocates also 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.
On Tuesday, those advocacy groups hailed the amendment providing for automatic expungement of prior convictions.
Cherie Cruz, co-founder of the Formerly Incarcerated Union of RI, said the state is on the cusp “of an historic moment.”
“The inclusion of state-initiated expungement in any framework of cannabis legalization is one of the most important concrete steps to work towards social justice, equity and repairing the harm of the failed war on drugs to so many impacted Rhode Islanders,” she said.
Miguel Martínez Youngs, organizing director of Reclaim RI, said, “The automatic expungement of criminal records puts this bill at the forefront of nationwide efforts to ensure that cannabis legalization bills right the wrongs of the drug war.”
Representative Leonela Felix, a Pawtucket Democrat, said, “Rhode Island is not only equitably granting conviction relief to many Rhode Islanders but also rebuilding trust in the justice system with the very communities targeted by the failed war on drugs policy, primarily people of color.”
The amendment provides for automatic expungement of any prior civil violation, misdemeanor, or felony conviction for possession of cannabis that would be decriminalized by the bill. Those seeking expungements would not have to file requests, pay fees or have hearings.
The sponsors said after having conversations with members of the judiciary, they’re confident a system can be developed to allow for automatic expungement. The amendment sets a deadline of July 1, 2024, for the courts to provide automatic expungement to all who are eligible. It also provides an expedited process for those who wish to have their record expunged earlier.
For participants in the state’s existing medical marijuana program, the amendment eliminates the current fees imposed upon patients, authorized purchasers, and primary caregivers for registry identification cards and plant tags, effective when adult recreational use begins on Dec. 1.
The amendment also extends the date by which those with out-of-state medical marijuana cards must provide government-issued identification from the same jurisdiction. The original bill would have made that requirement effective upon enactment, but the amendment extends it until March 1, 2023.
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 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.
In response to concerns raised about “separation of powers,” the amended bill makes some changes to the appointment process for members of the Cannabis Control Commission, the Cannabis Advisory Board and the administrative Cannabis Office, but their basic structure and functions remain as originally proposed.
John M. Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island, said, “The Cannabis Control Commission is still constitutionally defective because the governor is asked to pick one of the three commissioners from a list given to him by the Speaker of the House. Common Cause Rhode Island still believes the amended bill violates the Separation of Powers that Rhode Islanders fought so hard to put in our constitution.”
The revised bill smooths the transition to legal recreational use by allowing the Office of Cannabis Regulation to handle hybrid licensing to allow existing compassion centers and cultivators to serve the adult recreational market in addition to the medical market.
Some municipal leaders don’t want to see recreational marijuana shops in their towns. But to opt out under this legislation, towns would have to put the question on the ballot in November.
The amendment clarifies that those now hosting compassion centers will not have the option to opt out. Those hosting existing licensed cultivators or testing labs will be allowed to opt out, although those facilities will be grandfathered in.
The amended bill also adds a procedure for a community that opted out to revisit the issue in later years, and allows municipalities to ban cannabis use in public places by ordinance.
The sponsors emphasized that the amended bill does not change the measures they included in the original bill to address “social equity” to reduce barriers to participation for those communities that have long been disproportionately affected by cannabis prohibition.
The proposal 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.
“Social equity has been a top concern for us throughout this whole process,” Slater said. “Senator Miller and I represent some of the communities that have suffered disproportionate harm from prohibition for decades, resulting in generational poverty and mass incarceration. The starting line isn’t the same for people in poor, urban and minority communities, and they deserve support to ensure they get the full benefit of participating in legalization.”
Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.