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R.I. Senate leaders won’t support marijuana legalization in upcoming legislative session

Rhode Island’s legislative session starts Jan. 7. (Lane Turner/Globe Staff/File)
Rhode Island’s legislative session starts Jan. 7. (Lane Turner/Globe Staff/File) Lane Turner/Globe Staff

PROVIDENCE -- Rhode Island Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio said he won’t support legalizing marijuana in the coming legislative session, more than a year after pot sales began in neighboring Massachusetts.

Ruggerio, a North Providence Democrat, and Senate Majority Leader Michael J. McCaffrey, a Warwick Democrat, spoke with the Globe about the legislative session that begins Jan. 7, saying they are concerned legalized marijuana would have a “debilitating effect” on Rhode Island’s youths.

“If we have an education problem in this state, why would we legalize marijuana?” Ruggerio said.

Although Massachusetts legalized recreational use of marijuana a year ago, McCaffrey said there wasn’t enough information about the consequences of legalization.

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“Massachusetts is starting to realize the side effects of it, and insurance rates are going up,” McCaffrey said. “There is really no testing for someone who is driving impaired… We are seeing more accidents in Massachusetts because of impairment from marijuana.”

This year’s budget authorized six new medical marijuana dispensaries in Rhode Island, while also making all new cannabis-related regulations subject to approval by the General Assembly.

“I supported medical marijuana, and I’m disappointed over how it has been handled,” Ruggerio said.

Ruggerio said he’s prepared for a legal battle over medical marijuana with Governor Gina M. Raimondo, who filed a lawsuit in October asking the state Superior Court to stop legislation giving the General Assembly the right to veto regulations on the industry.

“I think she has the right to do that,” Ruggerio said of Raimondo’s lawsuit. “And I think we have the right to sue her as far as the six new compassion centers that were supposed to be ‘grow’, and she determined they were ‘non-grow.’”

In November, state regulators proposed awarding six medical marijuana retail licenses via lottery while preventing new dispensaries from building new marijuana cultivating operations.

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“Hopefully, it can be resolved between the parties,” Ruggerio said. “But you can’t just unilaterally go and change the statute just because you don’t agree with it.”

Since he won’t look at recreational legalization as a revenue stream for the state’s budget, Ruggerio said there has to be other avenues to balance the state budget.

“Obviously, we are going to have to raise more revenue, or start cutting our expenses,” Ruggerio said. “I have been saying this for 20 years: We have to address the structural deficit, or every year we are going to have a $200 million hole, or more than that.”

Ruggerio said he doesn’t want to raise any broad-based taxes, because he believes that cutting taxes over the years has been helping the state’s economy.

“So, we are going to have to find a way to increase revenue or reduce expenses,” he said, but did not offer specifics.

Ruggerio said he supports the car tax phaseout that is a priority for House Speaker Nicholas A. Mattiello, a Cranston Democrat. Mattiello has pushed to gradually decrease the motor vehicle excise tax each year, aiming to fully eliminate it in 2024. The phaseout is expected to cost the state $115 million in the coming fiscal year.

“I am hoping we can fund the next phase of the car tax reduction,” he said. “Obviously, everything is predicated upon the budget, and unless we address the deficit, we might have issues with that particular proposal. But I am fully supportive of that.”

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Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com


Amanda Milkovits can be reached at amanda.milkovits@globe.com