A deal on a bill to legalize marijuana in Rhode Island is finally coming together, legislative leaders said this week.
While there are still certain outstanding issues to resolve such as which agency should be tasked with regulating the market, lawmakers have made significant progress and have reached compromises on a number of topics, Sen. Josh Miller (D), sponsor of one legalization proposal, said during a panel hosted by Johnson & Wales University.
Miller warned that he couldn’t be especially specific on details given that negotiations are ongoing, but he expressed optimism that legislators are nearing an agreement.
One issue that’s nearing consensus concerns the number of marijuana business licenses that could be authorized. Miller’s bill, which was approved by the Senate earlier this year, proposed as many as 150 cannabis shops, whereas Gov. Dan McKee’s (D) plan called for 25 and Rep. Scott Slater (D) wanted just 15 in his separate House bill.
The senator said that “we’re probably down to more in the 30, 40 range.”
Expungements is another issue that’s being sorted out. There’s agreement that the social justice component should be included in whatever legislation ultimately passes, but Miller explained that there are some challenges when it comes to processing.
For example, conviction records for possession don’t always specify the amounts, which could complicate any automated expungement procedure to clear the records of people with convictions for offenses made legal under the reform.
“What we’re trying to do is create a mechanism to give the attorney general or the court system a time component—maybe 90 days—to find a quantity component that would disqualify them,” the senator said.
Negotiators have also reached an agreement to place a temporary moratorium on approving additional cannabis cultivator licenses. Some have protested adding cultivators beyond the existing medical marijuana licensees because they say there’s already a sufficient supply to meet demand in the adult-use market.
These are all positive developments that signal a forthcoming deal, but the sponsor said that negotiators still need to figure out which body should be charged with regulating the adult-use market.
Some like Miller want to set up an independent cannabis commission, whereas others feel the recreational market should be overseen by the state Department of Business Regulation (DBR), which currently regulates Rhode Island’s medical marijuana program.
According to WPRI-TV, whose reporter Steph Machado also participated in Tuesday’s panel, negotiators are leaning toward a hybrid model, with responsibilities being divided by DBR and a separate commission.
House Speaker Joe Shekarchi (D) would be open to a compromise, a spokesperson for the leader told the TV station. Lawmakers have been reviewing regulatory models in Connecticut, Massachusetts and New York.
A spokesperson for McKee said that “the governor supports recreational cannabis and his team has been actively working with our partners in the General Assembly on a bill that is equitable and benefits Rhode Island. The conversations are ongoing and we are hopeful that an agreement can be reached.”
Senate President Dominick Ruggerio (D), for his part, said last month that lawmakers are “very close” to reaching a deal on a marijuana legalization bill that could be taken up during a special session this fall.
“We sent legislation—which we think is a very good piece of legislation—over to the House before we left in June,” the senator said, referring to a legalization bill that his chamber approved in June. “They are working on that legislation with some of the House people at this point in time.”
The prospects of holding a special session could be bolstered if the legislature decides to take up separate legislation dealing federal with coronavirus relief, Miller said during Wednesday’s panel.
What remains to be seen is whether the negotiated legalization bill that’s ultimately produced will satisfy advocates and progressive lawmakers, some of whom have rallied behind an agenda for reform that emphasizes the need for bold social equity provisions.
While each of the competing bills contain components meant to address the harms of marijuana criminalization, the coalition led by Reclaim Rhode Island says they’re insufficient. Advocates and supportive lawmakers have laid out specific items that they want to see incorporated such as setting aside half of cannabis business licenses for communities most impacted by prohibition.
“We can’t reverse the harm of the war on drugs, but we can start to repair it by passing automatic expungement and waiving all related fines, fees and court debt,” Rep. Karen Alzate (D), chair of the Rhode Island Legislative Black and Latino Caucus, said last month. “This bold legalization plan offers us the chance to turn a new leaf for the Ocean State, and it’s time we take it.”
Ruggerio, for his part, said he does feel that the legalization bill that was approved in the Senate contained “very strong social justice provisions” and the expungements provision is “as close to automatic as practical.”
Reclaim Rhode Island isn’t the only group pushing lawmakers to expeditiously work to pass legalization. It’s part of a coalition of 10 civil rights and drug policy reform advocacy groups—including the Rhode Island chapters of the ACLU and NAACP—that recently demanded that lawmakers move ahead with enacting marijuana reform in the state before the end of 2021.
Shekarchi said in July that while there’s not yet a consensus among legislators and the governor on a deal to legalize marijuana, it’s still a “workable” issue and would be prioritized if negotiations succeed this summer and a special session is convened this fall.
Slater recently told Marijuana Moment that “things are still where they were” prior to the end of session—but lawmakers are “trying to figure out a reconciliation between my bill, the Senate’s and the governor’s.”
Meetings over the summer had been “mostly informal,” the representative said. “I think we can get there before next year. It will not be perfect, and I am sure a work in progress.”
Ruggerio said in July that he’s not disappointed the House hasn’t advanced legalization legislation yet and that “what we really wanted to do was send it over and have them take a look at it” when his chamber passed its cannabis reform measure.
Shekarchi, for his part, previously said that he feels reform is “inevitable.”
Senate Majority Leader Mike McCaffrey (D) was also recently asked about provisions related to allowing local municipalities to opt out of allowing marijuana businesses to operate in their area. He said “once the legislation is passed and whatever form is passed in, the communities have an opportunity to opt out.”
“They have an opportunity to opt out if the community doesn’t want to participate in it,” he said. “That’s their decision—however, they don’t get the funds that would come from the sales in that community.”
The majority leader also noted that neighboring states like Connecticut and Massachusetts have enacted legalization, and that adds impetus for the legislature to pursue reform in the state.
Shekarchi, meanwhile, said in July that he doesn’t intend to let regional pressure dictate the timeline for when Rhode Island enacts a policy change. Social equity, licensing fees, labor agreements and home grow provisions are among the outstanding matters that need to be addressed, the speaker said.
The House Finance Committee held a hearing on Slater’s legalization measure in June.
The governor previously told reporters 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 in July 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.
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