First time legalization moves to any floor of Rhode Island General Assembly 

 STATEHOUSE – Rhode Island is another step closer to possibly joining a growing list of other states that have already legalized adult recreational marijuana use. 

For years, Sen. Joshua Miller (Dist. 28 – Cranston, Providence) has been introducing legislation that would legalize, tax and regulate recreational marijuana use in the Ocean State without avail, but on Monday, the Judiciary Committee voted in favor of moving this onto the Senate floor. 

This is the first time legislation allowing for recreational marijuana use has been moved to either floor of the Rhode Island General Assembly. 

A number of changes were proposed while this legislation was being held for further consideration by the Senate Judiciary Committee this session, according to Chairwoman Cynthia A. Coyne (Dist. 32 – Barrington, Bristol, East Providence), prompting a proposed substitute.

“All of these changes were improvements upon the current bill, and all of the changes were made with the intent of the bill in mind – ensuring that the core of the bill and its goals remain intact,” Coyne said on Monday. 

As written, this legislation would legalize the possession of up to 1 oz. of marijuana by individuals 21 years of age and older, and would also allow for home grow comparable to our neighboring State of Massachusetts. 

Consumption would be prohibited in public places, and unsealed containers would be prohibited from the passenger areas of a car.

In addition to a 3 percent local sales tax and the state’s regular sales tax, a cannabis sales tax of 10 percent would apply. Licensing fees range from as low as $100 for a small cultivator’s license, $5,000 for manufacturers and testing entities’ licenses, and up to $20,000 for the largest cultivators and retailers.

The bill would also create a five-member, full-time Cannabis Control Commission, tasked with overseeing the licensing of four aspects of the cannabis supply chain: cultivation, manufacturing, retail, and testing. The commission would be empowered to establish rules and regulations for the state’s cannabis market and tasked to vet applicants.

The Senate Judiciary Committee worked diligently with its attorneys to address concerns of stakeholders and community members since it was first introduced to them in April, according to Coyne. The majority of changes were in regards to clarifying ambiguous language, addressing and eliminating inconsistencies,and making some structural edits that moved language from one portion of the legislation to another. 

There were also some substantive changes the committee believed were necessary, though, according to Coyne.

One of those substantive changes includes changing the number of retail licenses the Cannabis Control Commission could award to each municipality. Although every community will be permitted at least three licenses, the judiciary committee put forward language that would allow for an additional license for every 20,000 inhabitants in excess of 30,000 residents. Before this amendment was made, the legislation had suggested an additional license for every additional 10,000 inhabitants of a community. 

While cities and towns would have the opportunity to opt-out through voter referendum, in doing so they would forgo their opportunity to garner the 3 percent local tax collected at point of sale. Communities could pass local ordinances to regulate the time, place, and manner of cannabis operators; however, local communities could not impose any additional fees or contingencies.

Another substantive change included the requirement that all licensed cannabis retailers maintain a labor peace agreement with a bonafide labor organization. The Judiciary Committee also added a section that would create penalties for juveniles who “use, possess, cultivate, manufacture or distribute cannabis,” and require young offenders to complete a drug awareness program. 

Language was also added to permit the expunge civil violations for possessing 1 oz. or less of cannabis, according to Coyne. 

The legislation gained the support from the majority of the committee, though Sen. Leonidas Raptakis (Dist. 33 – Coventry, East Greenwich, West Greenwich) and Gordon E. Rogers (Dist. 21 – Coventry, Foster, Scituate, West Greenwich) were against moving this to the floor. 

In addition to Miller, other sponsors of the bill include Senators McCaffrey, Goodwin, Ruggerio, Coyne, Felag, DiPalma, Sosnowski, Pearson and Acosta. 

Similar legislation has also been introduced in the Rhode Island House of Representatives by Deputy Majority Leader Scott Slater (Dist. 10 – Providence), though Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi (Dist. 23 – Warwick) has publicly stated that “marijuana legalization will not be decided until after the budget is adopted this month.”

The Speaker has expressed the possibility of returning sometime in the summer or fall to revisit legalization – which our neighboring State of Connecticut appears posed to do as it heads into a special session this week. 

In addition to Slater, legislation in the House to legalize recreational use is also being sponsored by Representatives O'Brien, Amore, Solomon, Kazarian, Alzate, Hull, Potter, Morales, Giraldo. Although the bill has not found its way into committee, as of yet, as currently written the Adult Marijuana Use Act amounts to 53 pages. 

The act would authorize the director of the department of business regulation to license the cultivation and sale of marijuana for non-medical adult use, and proposes additional taxes apart from the state sales tax. These include “a municipal 5 percent local excise tax and an 8 percent state excise tax [that] would be added to the sales price.” 

Similar to the bill introduced by Sen. Miller, the Adult Marijuana Use Act also moves “for an automatic expungement procedure for prior marijuana convictions for an offense that has been decriminalized.”

The issue of legalization is expected to find its way onto the floor of the Rhode Island Senate next week. 

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