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RI POLITICS

Barrington becomes first R.I. town to schedule marijuana vote

But ‘many, many more’ communities are expected to schedule November votes now that Rhode Island has legalized recreational adult-use marijuana, officials say

Under the Rhode Island Cannabis Act, cities and towns would have to hold referendums asking voters if they want to opt out from the bills to legalize recreational marijuana for adults.Sakchai Lalit/Associated Press

PROVIDENCE — The wealthy suburb of Barrington is the first Rhode Island town to schedule a November vote on whether it will allow recreational marijuana to be sold or cultivated within its borders, the secretary of state’s office reported Monday.

But the office is expecting “many, many more” communities to schedule votes by the Aug. 10 deadline now that Rhode Island has become the 19th state to legalize adult-use recreational marijuana, secretary of state’s spokesman Johnathan Berard said.

On Monday evening, the town of Charlestown submitted a ballot question regarding marijuana sales and cultivation, he said.

So on Nov. 8, Barrington and Charlestown voters will be asked: “Shall new cannabis related licenses for businesses involved in the cultivation, manufacture, laboratory testing and for the retail sale of adult recreational use cannabis be issued in (those towns)?”

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Rhode Island contains 39 cities and towns, and many are expected to place the cannabis question on the November ballot, said Ernest Almonte, executive director of the Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns.

Barrington is one of 10 communities that have answered an informal survey, indicating they planned to hold such votes, Almonte said. The others are Jamestown, Hopkinton, Narragansett, New Shoreham (Block Island), North Kingstown, Richmond, Smithfield, Warren, and Westerly, he said, noting that it will be up to those towns to confirm whether votes will end up taking place.

“It’s a very important question, so that is probably why so many communities are going to leave it to the voters,” Almonte said.

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

But under the Rhode Island Cannabis Act, cities and towns would have to hold referendums asking voters if they want to opt out from the bills to legalize recreational marijuana for adults. If the voters decide the answer is “no,” 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.

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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.

Senator Joshua Miller, the Cranston Democrat who sponsored the Senate version of the bill, has predicted 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.”

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.

Barrington’s experience shows that the decision to put the cannabis question on the ballot can be a close call. On June 6, the Town Council voted 3 to 2 to place the question before voters.

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Denise Alves, of Barrington’s prevention coalition, urged the Town Council to put the issue on the ballot.

“Let the community vote,” she said, urging the town to hold more educational forums on the issue “so the community can really make an informed decision.” The town should “prepare either way,” and “be ready with zoning to put things in place,” she said.

Barrington resident Thomas Rimoshytus urged the Town Council to take no action, thereby allowing for the retail sale, testing, and cultivation of adult-use marijuana in Barrington. If voters reject the proposal, he said, “We are going to miss out on all this opportunity for tax money, businesses coming into town, people coming into town supporting our businesses.”

“Let it go. It’s gonna happen,” he said. “It’s not as bad as everybody thinks it is, believe me. I’ve never seen anyone overdose on marijuana, and I’ve been on a fire department for almost 40 years, half on rescues.”

Another resident, Sham Ganglani, said that while people might not overdose on marijuana, they do drive after smoking it. He said he rides a motorcycle and smells it all the time on the roads.

“I don’t know that there is a police officer out there who has a good approach to help keep us safe against driving under the influence of marijuana,” he said. “That would be a concern of mine, coming into Barrington.”

Kristen Westmoreland, also from Barrington’s prevention coalition, urged the Town Council to place the matter on the ballot, saying, “I’ve talked to people on both sides, people who are unsure. “I think there is more education to be done, and putting it out to a vote would be good way to make a decision of this magnitude.”

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Town Council President Michael Carroll noted that recreational adult-use marijuana is now legal in Rhode Island and Massachusetts.

“So it’s here,” he said. “There are arguments we can make about not making it legal, but that ship has sailed. I do think that because it is legal and will be regulated, we ought to give our businesses an opportunity to take advantage of this.” He said voters are likely to approve the measure, so he favored taking no action.

But Town Council member Annelise Conway argued that having a referendum would give the town the time to discuss the issue, educate residents, and get more “community buy-in.” She said those factors are more important than whether local businesses benefit or if the town receives additional revenue.

“I do think we need to prepare ourselves as a community for how our children are going to react, how parents can have conversations,” she said. “The legalization, although we knew it was coming, came very quickly, and this gives us an opportunity to prepare ourselves for how we manage it going forward.”


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