Rhode Island lawmakers introduced a new bill to legalize marijuana on Friday, with just weeks left to go in the 2021 legislative session.
Two sources familiar with the situation told Marijuana Moment that because time is running out, lawmakers are likely to reconvene in September to tackle the legislation, in addition to separate legalization proposals that have been filed by the governor and Senate leaders.
The new House bill from Rep. Scott Slater (D) and several cosponsors includes similar policies to tax and regulate cannabis for adult use, but in some respects it seems to contain a greater focus on addressing social equity than the other measures—even if it doesn’t contain everything advocates want.
“I feel like it will be good and something that can pass which tries to address many of the concerns of interested parties,” Slater told Marijuana Moment.
According to a summary, the goals of the measure are to gradually establish a recreational marijuana market, build consensus from “a majority of stakeholders” and prevent the market from being oversaturated as has happened in the state’s existing medical cannabis program.
“We need to learn from past mistakes in the [medical] marijuana program. In 2016, licensed cultivators were allowed to enter the market with no analysis of what our market could support,” Slater said. “Because there was no limit on applicants, dozens of people spent enormous sums of money to enter a market that could never support them. Cultivators are still struggling today from that decision that set them up to fail.”
Under the new bill, adults 21 and older could purchase and possess up to one ounce of marijuana in public. The could also grow up to six cannabis plants at home, with a maximum of 12 plants allowed in residences where more than one adult lives.
Unlike the governor’s measure and the one filed by Senate leaders, Slater’s proposal calls for automatic expungements for people with prior cannabis convictions.
The Department of Business Regulation, which would oversee the marijuana program, could initially license 15 recreational retailers, five of which would be reserved for social equity applicants. Another license would be issued to a worker-owned cooperative.
The state’s three current medical cannabis dispensaries, as well as six additional operators set to be awarded in a planned lottery this summer, would get the remaining adult-use licenses.
“We’re encouraged to see that Rep. Scott Slater is taking social and economic justice seriously in his proposal for recreational cannabis in Rhode Island,” Tyler Brown, an activist with the group Reclaim RI, told Marijuana Moment. He said the bill’s provisions on expungements and licensing “will go a long way in helping individuals and communities that have been directly impacted by the long war on drugs.”
Brown added, however, that “there is still room for improvement.”
“Specifically, we would like to see the number of additional social equity and worker cooperative licenses be equal to existing and approved medical retail licenses, raising the proposed number from six to nine, at least three of which should be coops, as well as strong union protections for employees of cannabis businesses through labor peace agreements.”
Under Slater’s legislation as introduced, the definition of who constitutes an equity applicant would be left completely up to regulators to decide. Additional licenses could be issued in 2025 based on market factors.
In addition to the state’s general sales tax, cannabis sales would get an added 8 percent state excise tax and a local excise tax of 5 percent. Revenue generated from those taxes would go to the state’s general fund.
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A new social equity assistance fund—supported by marijuana licensing and penalty fees—would be created to support restorative justice, jail diversion and cannabis industry workforce development, among other services. But the money would be subject to appropriation—a point of concern for advocates who feel those dollars should be explicitly earmarked and not put at risk of being redirected by lawmakers.
Individual municipalities would be allowed to ban cannabis businesses from operating in their area under the bill.
To address concerns about oversaturation of the market that have been expressed by existing growers in the state’s current medical cannabis program, no additional cultivation licenses could be issued until 2024.
“I do not want to repeat that same mistake of the past by opening this marketplace way beyond what it can support,” Slater said. “I want to create a stable marketplace and then analyze where we are at over time and make better decisions into the future.”
Questions remain about whether lawmakers will have time to take up the new bill and other legalization proposals as they continue to focus on the annual budget. There is also uncertainty about whether legalization will earn the support of top legislators like House Speaker Joseph Shekarchi (D), who has been relatively quiet on the issue.
Shekarchi 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 reform measure.
Gov. Daniel McKee’s (D) legalization plan, which was unveiled in March as part of his budget proposal, would also allow commercial cannabis sales to adults 21 and older. It was considered before a House panel last month but was not acted on.
Meanwhile, Senate leaders introduced their own legalization bill days before the governor’s announcement.
On the Senate side, both measures were heard in a joint committee hearing in early April but they were not voted on, and they’ve remained in a holding pattern since.
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.
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