PROVIDENCE — The House and Senate on Tuesday voted overwhelmingly to make Rhode Island the 19th state to legalize recreational marijuana.
The House voted 55-16 and the Senate voted 32-6 for the Rhode Island Cannabis Act after hearing warnings from police chiefs and after hearing advocates talk about the damage wrought by the “war on drugs.”
The legislation now heads Governor Daniel J. McKee, who plans to sign it into law at 3:15 p.m. Wednesday on the south lawn of the State House. McKee, a Democrat, had proposed a different regulatory structure, but last week he said he was looking forward to “reviewing the final bill that comes out of the General Assembly and signing legalization of adult use cannabis into law.”
Massachusetts and Connecticut have already legalized recreational marijuana, and 38 states, including Rhode Island, have legislation that allows for the medical use of cannabis, according to the National Conference on State Legislatures.
The legislation would allow people age 21 and older to keep up to 10 ounces of marijuana at home for personal use, and would also let people grow a small amount of marijuana at home. It would 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. And it would all 33 retailers in Rhode Island, distributed in six zones statewide, including the nine medical marijuana centers that could become hybrid medical/recreational retailers.
The primary sponsors are Senator Joshua Miller, a Cranston Democrat, and Representative Scott A. Slater, a Providence Democrat who is the son of the late Representative Thomas C. Slater, who died in 2009 and sponsored the medical marijuana act.
Last week, Miller and Slater unveiled revisions that would make expungement of past convictions for marijuana possession automatic — a key request of advocates. The amendments also would push the start date of legalized adult recreational marijuana sales from Oct. 1 to Dec. 1.
“The reality is that prohibition does not stop cannabis use,” said Miller, chair of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee. “Since Rhode Islanders can already access cannabis just across the state border or on the illicit market, we experience all the challenges without any of the safeguards or resources that our neighboring states have. With this bill, we are ending prohibition in a way that is safe, keeps revenue in Rhode Island, and is as fair and equitable as we can possibly make it.”
“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.”
On Tuesday morning, the Rhode Island Police Chiefs’ Association issued a statement, saying the legislation had “several public health and safety holes” that “could result in immediate detrimental effects for Rhode Islanders.”
“We stand as Rhode Island police chiefs who have a duty to call real and obvious concerns to the attention of our policymakers in state government,” said Sidney M. Wordell, the association’s executive director. “Further evaluation of several aspects of the bill is needed in order to support a safe and healthy environment for all Rhode Islanders.”
The chiefs’ association noted that while the legislation allows passengers in motor vehicles to use marijuana, there is no legal or commercially viable test for police to detect the presence of marijuana or determine whether a motorist is driving under the influence of marijuana. “This is inherently dangerous,” the group said. “Marijuana use in a motor vehicle should be fully banned, so to reduce the likelihood that a driver will be operating under the influence or operating while using marijuana.”
Roadways deaths have increased in Rhode Island in recent years, and Rhode Island had the highest percentage (44 percent) of alcohol-impaired driving fatalities in the nation as of 2019, the chiefs’ association said. “Adding commercial marijuana to the equation without any safeguards to discourage or prevent marijuana-impaired driving would make a bad problem worse,” it said.
But advocacy groups such as the Formerly Incarcerated Union of RI, the Working Families Party, Reclaim RI, and the Marijuana Policy Project applauded passage of the legislation that includes “a first-in-the-nation reservation of retail licenses for worker-owned cooperatives,” and automatic expungement of any prior civil violation, misdemeanor, or felony conviction for possession of cannabis.
“We are thrilled that this historic bill has made it through the legislature,” said Miguel Martínez Youngs, organizing director of Reclaim RI. “This bill helps right the wrongs of the drug war by automatically expunging criminal records and, for the first time anywhere in the country, reserving licenses for worker-owned cooperatives. We are excited to work with the state, other organizations, and working-class people across Rhode Island to help get these cannabis coops up and running.”
Cherie Cruz, co-founder of the Formerly Incarcerated Union of RI, said the legislation means that thousands of Rhode Islanders “will finally get relief from the collateral consequences of a past criminal legal record, particularly for an activity that is now soon to be legal. The inclusion of social equity licenses and coops means that everyday people who thought about getting into the industry, especially people who have been harmed by the past war on cannabis, can now get closer to joining the legal market.”
During Tuesday’s House debate, Representative Thomas E. Noret, a Coventry Democrat who retired after 20 years as a Coventry police officer, noted that police chiefs and other officers were in uniform in the gallery overlooking the House chamber.
“One representative who I respect very much asked me ‘Why do you hate weed so much?’ " Noret said. " It’s not that I hate weed. I don’t approve of this legislation because law enforcement has no real way of testing in the field for marijuana when someone who is stopped for suspected driving under the influence.”
Representative Leonela Felix, a Pawtucket Democrat said legislators could see that police officer were in the gallery, displaying their opposition to the legislation. But, she said, “The police are not more important than our community members. The police are not more important, their vote is not more important than my constituents who I represent, because if we look at the data 68 percent or more of people are supportive of marijuana legalization.
Felix, who advocated for automatic expungement of past marijuana possession convictions, said Rhode Island has figured out how to enforce laws against driving while intoxicated with liquor or other drugs, and she’s sure it can figure out how to stop people from driving while under the influence of marijuana.
Representative Arthur J. Corvese, a North Providence Democrat, voted against the bill, calling it “bad public policy.” He warned of a “slippery slope,” noting he also voted against legislation for “harm reduction centers” where people could use drugs while supervised – which he called “state-sanctioned opium dens.”
“We have an educational system in this state that some would say leaves our children behind,” Corvese said. “Yet we will go to these great lengths to legalize marijuana.”
But in a statement, House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi, a Warwick Democrat, said, “The bill represents a strong foundation from which to build the safe, equitable regulation of cannabis for adult use. We are proud that this legislation prioritizes the participation of people most impacted by the past enforcement of cannabis laws both through automatic expungement and the creation of a licensing structure based on social equity.”
Another Warwick Democrat, Senate Majority Leader Michael J. McCaffrey, said, “This is a truly momentous day for Rhode Island.” He thanked Miller and Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio, a North Providence Democrat, saying, “Ending cannabis prohibition helps us right past wrongs while creating new opportunities for all Rhode Islanders. This is the right move, at the right time, for our state.”