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Many expected Rhode Island to legalize recreational marijuana this year. What happened?

(Richard Vogel/Associated Press)

Marijuana advocates had high hopes for Rhode Island this year — optimistic that the state would follow in the footsteps of its northern neighbor and legalize marijuana for all adults. But a different narrative played out in New England’s smallest state when lawmakers left out recreational marijuana from the budget unveiled last week, and decided only to increase the number of medical marijuana businesses.

Governor Gina Raimondo’s proposed budget last winter included a plan to legalize recreational marijuana, which would have allowed the possession, use, and sale of recreational marijuana. The plan also included some limits, like prohibiting home growing.

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Turned off by those restrictions, the marijuana community has been conflicted, supportive of the governor’s intentions but discouraged that the proposal would not give them the same freedoms most other states give, including Massachusetts.

By the time the Legislature’s draft budget was released last week, recreational marijuana legalization was nowhere to be found. In its place was the addition of six “compassion centers,” the name for the state’s medical marijuana dispensaries.

The budget is set for a full House vote on Friday, to be taken up by the Senate next week.

“When the governor’s proposal came out, she came out with a proposal to legalize cannabis, but her proposal also had a lot of changes to the medical program,” said Providence state Representative Scott Slater, a longtime proponent of marijuana legalization. “It wasn’t that legalization wasn’t warmly received. It was [Raimondo’s] proposal to change a lot of the dynamics that are already going on.”

Slater is also the son of former state Representative Thomas Slater, whose name is attached to the 2006 law that legalized medical marijuana in Rhode Island. One of the state’s three medical marijuana dispensaries is also named after him.

Raimondo’s proposal would have prohibited recreational consumers from growing any of their own marijuana plants at home, and created requirements for medical patients who want to grow their own. Under current law, patients can grow their own plants, as long as they purchase tracking tags from the state. Raimondo’s proposal would have limited home growing to patients who can prove to the state they have a specific need to grow marijuana on their own.

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“They should really just leave the medical program alone if it’s medical, not tax the medicine, and legalize cannabis,” Slater said.

That restriction alone was discouraging for legislators who would otherwise support marijuana legalization, he added.

“The majority of people probably heard from their constituents, and most of the people who were in the [medical] program . . . hated the governor’s proposal because what it was going to do is it was going to restrict their ability to grow as patients,” he said. “If you’re currently getting what you need or growing what you need . . . why would you want that to change?”

But for Raimondo’s administration, those restrictions were common-sense policies that would ensure the public health and safety of Rhode Islanders, said Norman Birenbaum, who oversees the medical marijuana program and helped craft the administration’s proposal for recreational marijuana.

In addition to home grow restrictions, the administration’s proposal included a prohibition on products with more than 50 percent THC, the psychoactive compound in marijuana; changes to the way employers can test employees for marijuana; and frameworks for law enforcement agencies to test for marijuana impairment on the road.

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“We looked at other states that had done this, and we wanted to make sure we weren’t walking down the same path and making the same mistakes that other states had made,” Birenbaum said.

By and large, marijuana advocates in Rhode Island saw the Raimondo administration’s restrictions, particularly on home growing and potency, as detrimental to legalization efforts, said Jared Moffat, the Rhode Island political director for the Marijuana Policy Project.

A mix of backlash from some — and blatant apathy from others — left Raimondo’s proposal on an island of its own over the last several months with little support from advocates or impassioned negotiating from pro-marijuana legislators.

House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello said there just wasn’t an appetite among lawmakers for legalizing recreational marijuana this year.

Moffat wasn’t entirely surprised. He said the lack of excitement among constituents likely “led to the perception among leadership in the House, in particular, that this was not super popular.”

“While we were sort of generally supportive, there were provisions in it that a lot of the activist community and usual supporters of legalization were really opposed to,” Moffat said. “Those things made it very difficult for me to do my job, which is rally the troops behind this, and I think that led to mixed reactions to the governor’s proposal.”

And though marijuana advocates blame the unpopularity of Raimondo’s proposal for the failure of this year’s legalization efforts, Birenbaum said he doesn’t see the governor changing her position on those issues in coming years, especially home growing.

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“The administration’s view on this is we’re not trying to do this at any and all costs,” he said.

“Rhode Island has one of the highest per capita uses of marijuana in the country and has for about a decade already. . . . We need to have resources for public health and safety. We want to make sure that we’re offering safer versions of these products for people.”


Felicia Gans can be reached at felicia.gans@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @FeliciaGans.