STATE HOUSE — On Tuesday, the RI House of Representatives Committee on Finance examined legislation that would legalize recreational cannabis use for adults, with legislators and the public showing strong support for the bill and contemplating how it could be improved. The proposal in the House differs from the Senate’s recently passed, similar legislation in a number of key areas, including automatic expungement for past cannabis offenses and oversight and impact fees to be paid to municipalities where retail stores open. 

“I try to take input from a lot of the stakeholders in the cannabis world,” said sponsoring representative Scott A. Slater (D-Dist. 10, Providence). “Patients, caregivers, cultivators, existing compassion centers and the Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns. I try to take everyone’s input and compromise the best piece of legislation that I can for a legal, adult-use, recreational cannabis program.” 

The legislation, if approved in the House and signed into law, would legalize cannabis in the state, allowing possession up to one ounce by individuals over the age of 21. It also allows for home grow comparable to neighboring Massachusetts, with adults being able to grow up to 12 plants, with six active plants at any given time. 

Fifteen recreational cannabis licenses would be made available if the legislation is approved, with five of those being designated for equity applicants. Three of the licenses would go to the state’s three existing compassion centers and seven new licenses would be up for grabs, with one of those slots set aside for a co-op business.  

“We can work on the number of retail [licenses],” said Slater. “I’m open to adjusting that number. I think it’s important.”

“What I’ve found is that we have people, small businesses, our constituents, investing their money and there was no market for them,” he continued, speaking to the state’s expansion of medical marijuana access in recent years. “They got their licenses, they paid their fees, they did all the right things and I feel that we oversaturated the market and I don’t want to do that again.”

Last week, the RI Senate passed similar legislation, though Slater said his bill bears some significant differences. 

The first, said Slater, is that past cannabis-related offenses, both misdemeanors and felonies, would be automatically expunged if the legislation is approved. The Senate bill also offers expungement for past cannabis offenses, though that bill lays out a process to apply for expungement. Further, Slater’s bill would not create a five-member cannabis control commission as in the Senate’s version, but would leave oversight to the state’s Department of Business Regulation.

“My bill leaves the regulation to DBR, which has been doing a good job to authorize and promulgate regulations to effectuate the legislation,” said Slater. 

Municipalities would retain the right to oppose retail cannabis stores under both the House and Senate’s proposed bills. The House bill also establishes a 5 percent tax on the sale of recreational marijuana back to the city or town in which the retail store is located, as opposed to a 3 percent tax as approved by the state Senate. The House version also includes an additional “impact tax” that would be paid to municipalities where retail stores open, not to exceed 2 percent of total revenue and expiring after six months of business operation. 

Representative Camille Vella-Wilkinson (D-Dist. 21, Warwick) questioned if the bill had specific language that would guarantee a third of the licenses set aside for equity would go to applicants of color. Slater said DBR would ultimately control the license approval process and the community would have input on how licenses are awarded. 

“Five [licenses], I feel, would be people of color that would be impacted,” he said.

Rhode Island, when considered against its New England neighbors, has been delayed in seriously considering and voting on such a law. Massachusetts and Maine passed recreational cannabis in 2016 and Connecticut did the same by legislation this year. In 2018, Vermont became the first state to legalize cannabis through its state legislature. Only Rhode Island and New Hampshire have yet to legalize recreational cannabis within New England. In 2020, four states (Arizona, Montana, South Dakota and New Jersey) all approved legalization via ballot measures and the State of New York followed suit this year.  

RI House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi (D-Dist. 23, Warwick) has reportedly said the House will not take up consideration of Slater’s bill until the next legislative session, a topic that was raised by the legislation’s sponsor on Tuesday. 

“We’re probably going to be out of session soon for a little while,” said Slater, addressing another question on compassion center security and technology from Vella-Wilkinson. “The speaker has mentioned that if we do address this, it would be in a later session, so I’d be happy to work with you on the language on that.” 

After the committee deliberated, the public, all of which supported the general spirit of the bill, testified, with some noting that the proposed legislation did not go far enough in areas of expungement. Earlier in the hearing, Slater said ancillary offenses stemming from cannabis-related charges would not be automatically expunged under the proposed law. 

“It’s been more than a year since the murder of George Floyd,” said Erik Larson, an associate professor of crime and justice studies at University of Massachusetts Dartmouth and resident of Pawtucket. “Here, in our state, here in our nation and worldwide, societies are dealing with and thinking about how to repair the harms from both historical and contemporary racism. To me, I think we have a great opportunity here in Rhode Island to repair some of the harms that the war on drugs has done to our communities.”

 “One thing I think we need to understand is that when there is police contact because of marijuana policing, there tends to be ancillary charges that also, in my view, need to be expunged as well,” Larson added. 

A number of members of the public agreed. 

The legislation will likely be taken up again in the next legislative session. No vote to send the proposed law to the House floor was taken.

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