STATE HOUSE – The Rhode Island Senate on Tuesday largely approved legislation that would legalize and tax the sale of recreational cannabis in a manner similar to neighboring Massachusetts. An accompanying bill now awaits a vote in the Rhode Island House of Representatives.
Local and area senators Alana DiMario (D-Dist. 36, North Kingstown, Narragansett), Bridget Valverde (D-Dist. 35, East Greenwich, North Kingstown, South Kingstown, Narragansett), Susan Sosnowski (D-Dist. 37, New Shoreham, South Kingstown) all seconded and voted in favor of the legislation. Senators Leonidas Raptakis (D-Dist. 33, Coventry, East Greenwich, West Greenwich) and Elaine Morgan (R-Dist. 34, Charlestown, Exeter, Hopkinton, Richmond, West Greenwich) voted against the bill.
“We have arrived at this point about 10 years later than I would have liked and it’s important that we act expeditiously to enact a regulatory framework,” said the bill’s sponsor Senator Joshua Miller, (D-Dist. 28, Cranston, Providence), who has introduced similar legislation annually in recent years.
“Cannabis will be legal in Connecticut next week,” Miller continued from the Senate floor Tuesday. “Stores open by next May, a year from now, and Massachusetts opened their first shops in 2018, some of them just steps from the Rhode Island border. The longer we wait, the longer we put Rhode Island’s eventual cannabis retailers at a disadvantage. The longer we wait, the more Rhode Island customers are getting into the habit of driving to a nearby shop over the border and building relationships with those companies.”
The legislation, if approved in the House and signed into law, would create a “comprehensive tax and regulatory structure” that legalizes 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. Cannabis consumption would be prohibited in public places, and unsealed containers would be prohibited from the passenger areas of a car.If enacted, a Cannabis Control Commission would oversee a competitive and accessible licensing structure that would generate tax revenue through the regular state sales tax (7 percent), a special sales tax (10 percent) and a local sales tax (3 percent) that would go directly back to the municipality where the cannabis was legal purchased.
To prevent monopolization of the new market, Miller said, no business under the new legislation would be able to possess more than one license, though an individual could invest in more than one entity.
“We sought to create a vibrant, competitive marketplace, not dominated by a few big entities, but open to all, including those who wish to organize as a workers’ co-op,” said Miller.
Also outlined in the proposed legislation is a process that would allow for the expedited expungement of cannabis-related misdemeanor offenses free of charge, “whereby individuals file notice with the court for an automatic review of their record.” Some senators said this did not go far enough, however, as the legislation still requires a participatory process for this provision. Senator Sam Bell (D-Dist. 5, Providence) said the expungement for such crimes, under the new bill, should be automatic if recreational cannabis was legalized. Bell said he was still pleased with the bill as it was and ultimately voted in favor of its passage.
The legislation, updated from its previous version, now includes a provision that would provide one third of the allotted cultivation eligibility to those directly and indirectly impacted by prohibition - namely minorities and marginalized groups.
The hearing of the bill on the Senate floor was historic, as no similar legislation had ever made it out of committee in the Rhode Island legislature, usually being held for further study. On June 16, the Senate’s Judiciary Committee recommended the bill to the Senate floor for consideration in a 6-2 vote.
“This is a significant milestone. After roughly a decade of public discussion and debate in Rhode Island, this is the first time a legislative chamber in the General Assembly has voted on a bill to legalize cannabis for adults,” said Jared Moffat, state campaigns manager for the Marijuana Policy Project. “Polls have long shown that a majority of Rhode Islanders support ending marijuana prohibition, and now we’re closer than ever to getting the job done. Senate leaders deserve tremendous credit for their work on this important issue. Now it is time for the House to act and ensure that a cannabis legalization bill is sent to Gov. McKee’s desk before the clock runs out in the regular legislative session.”
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.
“With cannabis so readily available, whether on the black market or in neighboring states, Rhode Island must address all of the societal ills, but we will lack the regulatory framework and the revenue stream,” said Miller Tuesday. “This legislation is therefore urgently needed.”
In 2020, four states (Arizona, Montana, South Dakota and New Jersey) all approved legalization via ballot measures and New York followed suit this year.
A hearing on the accompanying House bill is set for Tuesday in front of the House Finance Committee.