RI Legal Marijuana Push Gets a Boost

By Tom Angell | March 22, 2017

Rhode Island's Senate president — who has long been skeptical of the push to legalize marijuana — is out, and the new incoming top official in the chamber is a leading cosponsor of a bill to end cannabis prohibition.

Current Senate President Terasa Paiva Weed, a Democrat, is reportedly stepping down to take a job at the Rhode Island Hospital Association.

Current Majority Leader Dominick Ruggerio is set to take her place, and replacing him as the Senate's number two is Judiciary Committee Chairman Michael McCaffrey.

Ruggerio and McCaffrey are, respectively, the second and third cosponsors listed on pending marijuana legalization bill S. 420.

“I believe that removing marijuana from the black market may make our communities safer," the incoming Senate president said after he cosponsored last year's version of the bill, which didn't end up receiving a vote. “It is an important conversation to have. I have listened to the debate regarding legalization of marijuana over the years and watched the experience in states such as Colorado."

After his colleagues voted him in as majority leader late last year, Ruggerio's acceptance speech "referenced the marijuana legalization vote in Massachusetts and suggested that marijuana will now be a key issue in the coming General Assembly session," according to the Providence Journal.

Paiva Weed, on the other hand, said in January that she has "significant concerns" about legalization.

In another interview she said she is worried about "the safety of the citizens…and the safety of children."

And in a TV appearance she raised concerns that the Trump administration could act against the state if it ended prohibition.

Leading House and Senate sponsors said in a press conference on Tuesday that they have enough votes to pass their bills if leadership brings them to the floor of either chamber, but that was considered a big if…until now.

But with leading legalization cosponsor Ruggerio set to take the helm of the Senate, Rhode Island just became much more likely to be the first state to legalize marijuana via votes in the legislature (as opposed to by an action of voters at the ballot box, as has been the case in the eight states that have so far ended prohibition).

Gov. Gina Raimondo and House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, also both Democrats, have expressed openness to legalization but have also said that it is more important to get the details right than to rush ahead to end prohibition. If Ruggerio pushes legalization through the Senate, it could force the House to take the issue more seriously than it otherwise might have this session.

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.

Regulate Rhode Island, the state's leading marijuana policy reform advocacy organization, released a report this week making that case that "now is the time" to end prohibition, especially since neighboring Massachusetts is in the process of implementing legalization.

"If Rhode Island does not take action this year, we will send revenue and jobs to our neighbor," it said.

Identical companion House and Senate 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.

The Senate Democratic caucus is expected to make the leadership change official this week.

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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