Rhode Island Marijuana Legalization Deal In The Works

By Tom Angell | May 19, 2017

As other states in New England move ahead with marijuana law reforms, it was starting to seem as if the effort to legalize cannabis in Rhode Island this year might fail and that the legislature would instead simply create a study commission to examine the possible future end of prohibition.

But signs are now emerging that a compromise is possible.

In an interview earlier this week, House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello (D) said that instead of passing a marijuana legalization bill this year he believes “we’re going to end up with a study commission,” suggesting that he didn’t see enough of a push from rank and file members of the legislature to make ending prohibition a priority.

The House Judiciary Committee approved a study commission bill on Tuesday, opting not to act on a broader full legalization bill.

However, in a hearing on Thursday night, Senate Judiciary Committee members discussed a possible compromise that would enact some provisions of legalization this year and then let decisions on difficult issues like edibles, product testing, business licensing and local opt-out be triggered at a later date by a study commission’s recommendations.

Sen. Josh Miller (D), chief sponsor of the Senate legalization bill, told the committee that Rhode Island should look to Vermont as an example.

There, lawmakers recently approved a bill to legalize low-level possession and home cultivation and have a study commission make recommendations on how to tax and regulate marijuana sales at a later date. Gov. Phil Scott (R) has until Wednesday to sign or veto the legislation, or allow it to go into law without his signature.

“The most important alternative, if we’re not going to consider this legislation in its current form, is to look at the legislation that just passed in Vermont,” Miller said.

He called the trigger approach a “compromise for what Rhode Island could do to create certainty in the Northeast that we are going to do this and do it right and do it in a time that we wouldn’t see the commerce brought to another state that had already done it.”

Advocates have pushed Rhode Island to not wait because of the tax revenue and job creation potential they say will instead be going to other states in the region that are changing their laws, most significantly next door in Massachusetts, which approved a legalization initiative last fall.

Maine voters also approved a ballot measure in November, and leaders in the Connecticut legislature included language ending cannabis prohibition in their revised annual budget request this week.

“After some disappointing comments from Speaker Mattiello, we have renewed hope that some kind of ‘incremental legalization’ bill may come out of the Senate,” Jared Moffat, director of Regulate Rhode Island, told MassRoots in an interview.

“The idea of studying legalization seems to be getting traction, but there’s a difference between studying ‘if’ marijuana should be legalized versus ‘how’ it should be legalized,” he said. “We are somewhat optimistic that we can convince the legislature to answer the ‘if’ question this session and study the ‘how’ question in the coming months.”

Matt Schweich, director of state campaigns for the Marijuana Policy Project, testified at the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing that the compromise approach “would at least allow the regulators to start looking at these regulations.”

Miller also discussed the potential deal in a radio interview this month, saying that he will soon push to amend his current legalization bill with the compromise language.

“We would have triggers based on commission recommendations,” he said, describing the revised approach. “So instead of passing one or the other, incorporate a commission into a tax and regulate bill that we pass.”

“We would be going down the road so wouldn’t see Rhode Islanders still accessing recreational marijuana either in Vermont, Connecticut, Massachusetts or Maine, who are all coming online, probably very quickly.”

Miller suggested that state’s three current medical cannabis compassion centers could serve as the initial legal distribution centers for recreational marijuana.

Gov. Gina Raimondo (D) has expressed openness to considering legalization but has also said that it is more important to get the details right than to rush ahead to end prohibition just because the state’s neighbors are doing it.

Senate President Dominick Ruggerio (D) is a leading cosponsor of Miller’s legalization bill but he hasn’t made moving it to the floor for a vote a priority.

In recent years, Rhode Island lawmakers have already legalized medical cannabis and decriminalized low-level marijuana possession.

A recent poll found that 59 percent of the state’s voters support full legalization.

As introduced, the identical companion House and Senate legalization bills would allow adults over 21 years old to legally possess up to one ounce of marijuana in public — and five ounces at home — as well as infused cannabis products containing no more than a total of 300 mg of THC. People would be allowed to homegrow one cannabis plant.

A new state Office of Cannabis Coordination would be established to implement the law, craft regulations and, along with the existing Department of Business Regulation and Department of Health, issue marijuana business licenses.

There would be at least at least 40 licensed cannabis retailers, 25 cultivation facilities, 20 processors and 10 testing facilities. Marijuana products would be subject to a 23 percent retail excise tax on top of the state’s 7 percent sales tax.

Tom Angell

Tom Angell is a senior political correspondent for MassRoots. A 15-year veteran in the cannabis law reform movement, he covers the policy and politics of marijuana. Separately, he serves as chairman of the nonprofit Marijuana Majority and is editor of the daily Marijuana Moment newsletter.

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