PROVIDENCE – Rhode Island lawmakers are hoping to legalize cannabis and tax it in a system similar to alcohol, according to legislation proposed last week.

A bill introduced in the Rhode Island Senate by Senator Joshua Miller (D-Dist. 28, Cranston and Providence) and Senate Majority Leader Michael McCaffrey (D-Dist. 29, Warwick) 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. 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 sales tax, a special sales tax, and a local sales tax.

“Cannabis legalization is a monumental shift in public policy that effectively creates a new economy,” said Miller, who also chairs the Senate Committee on Health and Human Services. “We want to ensure as many Rhode Islanders as possible have the opportunity to participate in this new economy. That is why we set low, tiered licensing fees and we are also calling for the creation of a Cannabis Equity Fund to help individuals who have been directly and indirectly impacted by our past policy of prohibition.”   

“Cannabis legalization is as much about reconciliation as it is revenue,” added McCaffrey. “The Justice Reinvestment prison reform initiative showed that policies of prohibition have disproportionately impacted communities of color, and I believe we must ensure any effort to legalize cannabis recognizes and rectifies those wrongs. Low barriers to entry, expungement reform, and broad access to programs designed to increase access for individuals and communities impacted by the failed War on Drugs are an important and necessary component.”

The bill has since been referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee. Senate President Dominick Ruggerio (D-Dist. 4, Providence and North Providence) is a co-sponsor of the bill, along with Senator Susan Sosnowski (D-Dist. 37, New Shoreham and South Kingstown), and others.

Also outlined in the proposed legislation is a process that would allow for the expungement of cannabis-related offenses free of charge, “whereby individuals file notice with the court for an automatic review of their record.”

Some say the proposed policy, however, does not go far enough to ensure the expungement of past offenses related to cannabis. Yes We Cannabis - RI, an advocacy group promoting cannabis legalization that prioritizes social justice and equity, brought forth “serious concerns” regarding the bill in a statement, while noting it was “happy that the General Assembly is taking cannabis legalization seriously.”

“First in the area of expungement, we strongly urge the General Assembly to amend this section of the bill to 1) allow expungement for all offenses regardless of the weight or amount of cannabis involved, 2) expand eligibility to cover all cannabis offenses under the Controlled Substances Act (not limited only to possession, sale and distribution), and 3) create an automatic expungement system that does not place a burden on individuals to bring forth petitions to the courts,” the statement reads.

“Second, the regulation agencies and advisory committee do not make any space for people who have been directly impacted and harmed by cannabis prohibition laws,” the organization continued. “Both the Cannabis Control Commission and the advisory board should include substantial representation from people who have been harmed by the War on Drugs.”

Yes We Cannabis – RI also advocated for the bill to include a provision that would reinvest cannabis-generated tax revenue in communities that have been disproportionately impacted by cannabis prohibition laws.

If the bill passes, Rhode Island would join 13 other states in legalizing cannabis. In 2018, Vermont became the first state to legalize cannabis through its state legislature. In 2020, four states (Arizona, Montana, South Dakota and New Jersey) all approved legalization via ballot measures.

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