The Rhode Island Senate on Tuesday approved a bill to legalize marijuana.
The legislation, which cleared the chamber’s Judiciary Committee last week, passed in a 29-9 vote.
Senate Majority Leader Michael McCaffrey (D) and Health & Human Services Chairman Joshua Miller (D) are the lead sponsors of the measure, which they introduced in March, days before Gov. Dan McKee (D) came out with his own legalization proposal.
“It is a historic day, as it is the first time a bill to legalize and regulate cannabis has reached the floor of either legislative chamber in Rhode Island,” Miller said before the vote.
“It is important that we act expeditiously to enact a regulatory framework,” he added, noting policy changes in surrounding states such as Connecticut, where the state’s governor signed a legalization bill into law earlier on Tuesday.
“Cannabis legalization is as much about reconciliation as it is revenue,” McCaffrey said in a press release. “[P]olicies of prohibition have disproportionately impacted communities of color, and I believe we must ensure any effort to legalize cannabis recognizes and rectifies those wrongs. Low barriers to entry, expungement reform, and broad access to programs designed to increase access for individuals and communities impacted by the failed War on Drugs are an important and necessary component.”
— Rhode Island Senate (@RISenate) June 22, 2021
A third Rhode Island legalization measure was also recently filed on the House side by Rep. Scott Slater (D) and several cosponsors.
But while the Senate moved forward with the leaders’ bill, House Speaker Joseph Shekarchi (D) recently signaled that legalization wouldn’t be taken up until the summer or fall.
Senate President Dominick Ruggerio (D) said in a press release on Tuesday that he wants to work with the governor and the House to get the reform done this year.
“Under the status quo, with cannabis readily available, Rhode Island must address all the societal costs, but we have no regulatory framework and no associated revenue stream. The longer we wait to open a cannabis marketplace, the further behind we fall from a competitive standpoint,” he said. “I encourage our partners in government to continue to work with us to bring this needed legislation over the goal line.”
McKee, for his part, told reporters earlier in the day that while he backs legalization it is “not like one of my highest priorities,” adding that “we’re not in a race with Connecticut or Massachusetts on this issue.”
“I think we need to get it right,” he said, pointing to ongoing discussions with the House and Senate.
The the House Finance Committee discussed the governor’s proposal to end prohibition at a hearing in April.
The bill approved in the Senate on Tuesday would allow adults 21 and older to purchase and possess up to one ounce of cannabis. They could also cultivate up to six plants for personal use.
A Cannabis Control Commission would be established to regulate the market and issue business licenses. Marijuana would be subject to the state’s seven percent sales tax, in addition to a 10 percent special tax and a three percent local tax for jurisdictions that allow cannabis firms to operate in their area.
Under a substitute amendment approved by the Judiciary Committee last week, the bill stipulates that there “shall be no new cannabis cultivators’ licenses issued prior to July 1, 2023.” Regulators would also be tasked with reviewing data annually to “determine the maximum number of licenses that shall be issued to meet the production demands.”
It was also changed from its original form to require labor peace agreements for marijuana businesses—a provision that could bolster support among progressives.
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Driving while under the influence would be prohibited, but people can’t be considered impaired “solely for having cannabis metabolites in his or her system” under the bill. That also represents an expansion, as the initial proposal would have only applied that protection to medical cannabis patients.
People with prior convictions for possession of up to two ounces of cannabis could have their records expunged, whereas the previous version capped that threshold at one ounce. But courts would have 90 days, instead of 60, to act on expungement petitions.
In addition to expungements, the bill also now includes provisions to provide for record sealing.
People or entities cannot own more than one marijuana business license, but the substitute version now clarifies that people would be able to invest in multiple operations.
Each municipality could have at least three cannabis retailers operating in their jurisdiction, but the population threshold for additional licensees was increased, making it so additional retailers could be approved for every additional 20,000 residents above a baseline 30,000. The original bill placed the threshold at every 10,000 people over the 30,000 baseline, so this would have the effect of limiting the number of retailers.
The bill’s passage in the Senate comes in contrast to recent comments from House leadership, with the speaker saying last week that it’s “possible we will return some time in the summer or fall” to tackle legalization. He said the priority is to pass the budget this month.
The governor also said this month that he “wouldn’t be surprised if this is something that gets carried over maybe to a fall session.”
Meanwhile, the Senate majority leader recently said that, unlike Slater and the governor, he doesn’t want to have the market regulated through the state Department of Business Regulation; rather, he feels it’s important to “have a separate commission in one form or another.”
As lawmakers have worked to pass a budget, there have been outstanding questions about whether there’s sufficient support for legalization. The House speaker has been relatively quiet on cannabis reform, so his recent comments on tackling the issue as early as this summer are notable.
The speaker said recently that he views legalization as “inevitable,” but he told Politico that there are “many pressing matters before us” and he’s not sure if the chamber will have time to consider the cannabis measure.
Both the governor and the leaders’ legalization plans are notably different than the proposal that former Gov. Gina Raimondo (D) had included in her budget last year. Prior to leaving office to join the Biden administration as commerce secretary, she called for legalization through a state-run model.
McKee gave initial insights into his perspective on the reform in January, saying that “it’s time that [legalization] happens” and that he’s “more leaning towards an entrepreneurial strategy there to let that roll that way.”
Shekarchi, meanwhile, has said he’s “absolutely” open to the idea of cannabis legalization and also leans toward privatization.
Late last year, the Senate Finance Committee began preliminary consideration of legalization in preparation for the 2021 session, with lawmakers generally accepting the reform as an inevitability. “I certainly do think we’ll act on the issue, whether it’s more private or more state,” Sen. Ryan Pearson (D), who now serves as the panel’s chairman, said at the time.
Meanwhile, the Rhode Island Senate approved a bill in March that would allow safe consumption sites where people could use illicit drugs under medical supervision and receive resources to enter treatment. Harm reduction advocates say this would prevent overdose deaths and help de-stigmatize substance misuse.
The Senate Judiciary Committee also held a hearing in March on legislation that would end criminal penalties for possessing small amounts of drugs and replace them with a $100 fine.
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.