Rhode Island Marijuana Legalization Bill Rolled Out [FEATURE]

Rhode Island took a big step toward marijuana legalization this week as a long-awaited compromise marijuana legalization bill rolled out. On Tuesday, Sen. Joshua Miller (D-Cranston, Providence) and Rep. Scott Slater (D-Providence) introduced identical House and Senate bills to legalize, regulate and tax recreational marijuana in the state.

The bill, the Rhode Island Cannabis Act (Senate Bill 2430 and House Bill 7593) would legalize the sale of up to one ounce of marijuana for those age 21 and up, with no more than 10 ounces for personal use kept in a primary residence, effective October 1. It would also allow Rhode Islanders to grow three plants at home.

And this looks like the year it could actually get done. Democratic Gov. Dan McKee (D) is down for legalization and included a proposal to end cannabis prohibition as part of his annual budget plan in the form of House Bill 7123 in January.

Similarly, House Speaker Joe Shekarchi (D), who has been working with the governor and lawmakers to find a compromise between differing approaches, is now on board and calls legalization "inevitable." Likewise, Senate Majority Leader Michael McCaffrey (D-Warwick) is fully supportive.

"We've been working hard since the end of last session to establish consensus on the details, but our efforts to address the issue have been going on for many years, during which time our neighboring states have already made this move ahead of us. Rhode Island is now behind them from a competitive standpoint, since it's fairly easy for most Rhode Islanders to cross the state line to make a legal purchase," McCaffrey said in a statement on Tuesday. "The truth is, legal cannabis is already widely available to Rhode Islanders, but the resulting revenue is not. With this bill, we will create jobs, revenue and control in our own state, and help address some of the inequities that have resulted from prohibition."

The main bone of contention had been who would regulate the legal market, and this legislation addresses that with a sort of hybrid consisting of a new independent Cannabis Control Commission and a Cannabis Office within the Department of Business Regulation. The two agencies, along with a new advisory board, would share responsibility for overseeing the operation of the market.

The bill would allow up to 33 retail pot shop licenses distributed in six zones statewide, including nine compassion centers that could potentially be hybrid recreational and medical retailers. It addresses social equity concerns by requiring that 25 percent of new retail licenses go to applicants who qualify as social equity businesses and another 25 percent of licenses go to worker-owned cooperatives. There is also a funding stream for social equity grants and job training to be generated by fees.

Retail marijuana could be taxed at up to 20 percent via a sales tax of 7 percent, a local sales tax of 3 percent, and an excise tax of 10 percent. State tax revenues would go to the general fund and could be used to pay for expenses related to running a legal marijuana system.

"The time for Rhode Island to move forward with cannabis legalization is now. This historic shift in public policy will create a vibrant new marketplace in our state and end the failed practice of prohibition, which has caused such harm to so many in our communities. To help address those past wrongs, and to ensure all Rhode Islanders have the opportunity to share the economic benefits associated with legalization, equity is a central focus of this legislation," said Sen. Miller chairman of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, in his statement announcing the legislation.

"It is the right public policy for Rhode Island to make cannabis possession and sales legal. We have been studying legalization proposals here for many years, and we now can look to our neighboring states' experiences and see that taxing and regulating cannabis makes sense," said Rep. Slater. "I'm especially proud that we have made a very deliberate effort to address social equity through this bill. We have to recognize the harm that prohibition has done to communities, particularly minorities and poor, urban neighborhoods, and ensure that those communities get the support they need to benefit from legalization."

At the Tuesday rollout, legislative leaders made it clear that while the bill is the result of months of negotiations, it is only at the beginning of the legislative process, and the sausage is about to be made.

"I want to emphasize that the bill introduced today is not the final product -- rather, it is the beginning of the public process of legalizing cannabis for recreational use in Rhode Island," Shekarchi said in a statement during the rollout. "We welcome input from the public as to whether or how we should implement recreational usage, and I expect robust discussions with House membership as well."

Still, it seems like the stars are aligning for marijuana legalization this year in the Ocean State. Stay tuned.

Permission to Reprint: This article is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license.
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