Marijuana legalization is “inevitable” in Rhode Island and bound to happen “soon,” House Speaker Joseph Shekarchi (D) said on Wednesday.
But while he plans to continue negotiations to merge competing reform proposals over the summer with the goal of passing a bill in the fall, the top lawmaker told WPRI-TV that he wants to get the details right without rushing and he’s not sure if legalization will happen before the end of 2021.
As in other recent interviews, Shekarchi said he doesn’t intend to let regional pressure dictate the timeline for when Rhode Island enacts a policy change. But it is the case that legalization has now gone in effect in in surrounding states like Connecticut and Massachusetts.
“I’m not in any hurry to legalize marijuana for the sake of legalizing it. I want to do it right,” he said. “It doesn’t matter to me if we’re the last state in the union to legalize it or we never legalize it, but I need to do it right.”
“I need to make sure that we do this right for the taxpayers of Rhode Island and for the medical community, the business community,” he continued. “This needs to be done properly, and I’m not going to be rushed into it because other states are moving fast. I want to learn from other states, look at the mistakes they’ve made, look at what’s worked in other states, collaborate with them and work to put out a good product.”
The Rhode Island Senate did pass a bill to legalize marijuana last month. But that’s one of three separate proposals moving through the legislature, and the speakers has said that there are a series of issues that need to be resolved before the House advances reform.
Social equity, licensing fees, labor agreements and home grow provisions are among the outstanding matters that need to be addressed, he said.
“If we can reach a consensus with the Senate and the governor’s office on marijuana, we’d certainly come back in the fall to address that issue,” he said on Wednesday.
“I don’t see it happening before Labor Day,” he added, noting that the lack of air conditioning in the State House would likely prevent the legislative session from resuming in the middle of the summer and so it’s more likely it would happen in “late September or early October.”
Another main issue that’s yet to be resolved is who should regulate the recreational market—the state’s existing Department of Business Regulation or an independent cannabis commission.
“I don’t know if there’s a combination of the two” that could be agreed on, Shekarchi said in a separate interview last month, adding that “we’ll have to wait and see where everybody can come together.” That could take place in the fall, as he’s previously suggested.
These latest comments come weeks after the state Senate approved a legalization bill from Senate Majority Leader Michael McCaffrey (D) and Health & Human Services Chairman Joshua Miller (D), which was introduced in March. Gov. Dan McKee (D) also came out with his own legalization proposal shortly thereafter.
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A third Rhode Island legalization measure was also recently filed on the House side by Rep. Scott Slater (D) and several cosponsors. The House Finance Committee held a hearing on the measure last month.
The governor, for his part, told reporters last month 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 House Finance Committee discussed the governor’s proposal to end prohibition at an earlier hearing in April.
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 governor on Wednesday signed a historic bill to 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. Rhode Island is the first state to allow the facilities.
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 Max Pixel.