Rhode Island Lawmakers Debate How—Not Whether—To Legalize Marijuana At Hearing On Governor’s Plan
A House panel in Rhode Island considered an adult-use marijuana legalization proposal from Gov. Daniel McKee (D) on Thursday along with three separate bills that would make significant reforms to the state’s current medical cannabis system.
While lawmakers did not act on any of the proposals, they asked detailed questions of the governor’s administration about how—not whether—to eventually legalize cannabis in the state.
Legislative leaders have repeatedly said that ending marijuana prohibition is “inevitable” in Rhode Island, but they’ve acknowledged that hammering out policies that can win broad backing might take some time. Reaching agreement on certain provisions, some lawmakers said this week, could prevent the policy change from happening this year, although others remain optimistic.
The chair of the House Finance Committee, Rep. Marvin L. Abney (D), stressed at the hearing that holding bills is routine and happens “if there’s work that needs to be done on the bill, which generally there is on almost all” pieces of legislation. “That is why we hold a bill for further study. We don’t hold it to kill it or anything like that,” he said.
The governor’s legalization plan, unveiled in March as part of his budget proposal, is one of two competing measures already introduced that would allow commercial cannabis sales to adults 21 and older. Senate leaders introduced their own legalization bill days before the governor’s announcement, but that measure wasn’t before the House panel this week.
On the Senate side, both measures were heard in a joint committee hearing in early April but were not voted on, and they’ve remained in a holding pattern since.
One of the most obvious differences between the two proposals, said Matt Santacroce, who heads the state Department of Business Regulation (DBR)’s Office of Cannabis Regulation, is how the new industry would be overseen. While the Senate bill would create a separate commission to regulate cannabis, the governor’s budget proposal would leave control to DBR, which currently runs the state’s medical marijuana system.
Santacroce offered the contrast in response to a question from Rep. Alex Marslakowski (D), who asked representatives of McKee’s administration who were present at the hearing “why we should choose one proposal over the other.”
“Sell me on it,” Marslakwowski said. “Why do you think theirs is better, theirs is worse?”
Santacroce told lawmakers that the department has had success working with medical marijuana licensees. The governor’s marijuana plan, Article 11 in his proposed budget, “aims to leverage that existing governance infrastructure, which is, you know, not creating anything new,” Santacroce said. Establishing an independent commission, as the Senate bill proposes, “takes both time and money.”
Santacruce added that the Senate leadership “clearly put a ton of work into this issue.”
“We’re very hopeful that we can get together and continue to have that conversation about where the shared areas agreement are and, to the extent there are differences, how to potentially reconcile those,” he said.
Beyond governance, the two proposals also differ on social equity and licensing provisions for people most impacted by the war on drugs, particularly communities of color, as well as taxes and other regulatory details. Some lawmakers said they were concerned the governor’s plan, which would add a 3 percent tax to medical marijuana cultivators, would raise the effective price on medical marijuana for patients.
So far no standalone legalization legislation has been introduced in the House of Representatives, although Rep. Scott Slater (D), the panel’s vice chair, has previously indicated he’s might bring such a bill.
Slater, who is traveling this week, told Marijuana Moment on Thursday that he is “trying to work on a legalization proposal” but that it “just gets so complicated because there are so many different interested parties.”
“I am hopeful that we can get a proposal in the budget,” he said. “I definitely see a path forward this year.”
As for his own proposal, Slater said it’s been difficult to craft specific policies that will win support among various stakeholders. “The real tough part is that there is already an existing medical community that wants to be included in a new market, and all the…advocates want licenses just dedicated to communities that have been harmed, which I understand.”
“What advocates in the industry do not understand is there [are] still a lot of people that think recreational cannabis is a bad idea,” he continued. “So I am trying my best but sometimes it feels like any legislation I put out will be ripped apart.”
Though lawmakers at Thursday’s hearing avoided outright debate about the governor’s proposal, Rep. Camille Vella-Wilkinson (D) asked a number of detailed questions about its provisions, probing legal liability around a lottery-based business licensing program and wondering about the accuracy and precision of roadside impairment tests for drivers. She also suggested possible incubator programs for small businesses and training programs at the University of Rhode Island to prepare young people to work in the newly legal industry.
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Rep. Deborah Ruggiero (D), meanwhile, noted that many local officials have complained about a provision in the measure that would require communities hold special elections in November if they want to opt out of allowing cannabis retailers. Local governments say those elections, especially on such short notice, would be burdensome. Communities that opt out would also receive a smaller cut of marijuana tax revenue.
During public testimony, the overwhelming majority of comments came in support of ending cannabis prohibition generally. But even some proponents of legalization urged lawmakers to reconsider certain provisions of the bill.
Social justice advocates, most notably, said the equity provisions in the governor’s proposal fall short of what’s needed to address the drug war’s disproportionate impact on communities of color. Many noted that the proposal lacks automatic expungement provisions.
Others criticized the governor’s proposed social equity licensing provisions, which specify that the first five cannabis business licenses of every type would go to qualifying minority-owned businesses, which includes women-owned businesses.
Yet other commenters urged lawmakers to adopt language allowing cooperative grow models among individuals rather than requiring consumers to buy products from for-profit businesses.
The House Finance Committee also took up three separate bills on Thursday that would make changes to the state’s existing medical marijuana program, which critics have said is too restrictive, especially with residents able to bypass the system by simply driving to nearby states that have legalized cannabis for all adults.
One, HB 5452, would require the state Department of Business Regulation to analyze the licensing system from a social equity and racial perspective and move to eliminate barriers to entry for people most impacted by prohibition to participate in the industry. Another, HB 5451, would earmark marijuana tax revenue for a “distressed communities relief fund,” as well as charitable organizations that legislative leaders would select each year.
Both measures were introduced by Rep. Anastasia Williams (D), who said the state’s existing medical marijuana system has perpetuated the status quo of white business owners profiting while people of color are largely cut out of the industry. As “has been a practice for eons,” she said, the state is “overlooking or dismissing the needs of the community of color, the urban core.”
“The truth hurts sometimes,” she added, “and people are so concerned about talking about reality.”
One of the panel’s Republican members, Rep. George A. Nardone, questioned HB 5451’s provision that would allow legislative leaders to earmark a portion of leftover cannabis revenue to unspecified nonprofit organizations. “It’s going to be giving unbridled power to both the speaker and the Senate president to spend it on the charity of their choice?” he asked.
Williams replied that it’s “not necessarily a charity of their choice,” but added that “I always like to respect my leadership, and that percentage would definitely be with them.”
“Trust me, and believe me, they may be in there, but trust me that the recommendations and suggestions are going to come from the people,” she said.
The third bill, HB 5453, would eliminate a series of existing regulations for the state’s medical cannabis program such as the plant-tagging system for patients and caregivers who want to cultivate marijuana. Annual dispensary license fees would be slashed from $500,000 to $5,000, and the cap on the number of shops that could operate would be removed and instead tied to the state’s population.
Further, the definition of who could qualify as a medical marijuana patient would be significantly expanded to include “any serious health condition a reasonable practitioner believes, based on their experience, knowledge, and reasonable judgment as a health care provider, could be alleviated or treated through the use of medical marijuana.” Nurse practitioners, and not merely doctors, would be allowed to recommend cannabis.
The bill’s sponsor, Slater, who is also considering introducing House legislation to legalize adult-use cannabis, has previously described the medical marijuana reform measure as establishing a “de facto recreational program.”
Both the governor and the Senate leaders’ adult-use legalization plans are notably different than the proposal that former Gov. Gina Raimondo (D) had included in her budget last year. Prior to leaving office to join the Biden administration as commerce secretary, she called for legalization through a state-run model.
Gov. McKee said in January that “it’s time that [legalization] happens” and signaled that he was “more leaning towards an entrepreneurial strategy there to let that roll that way.”
Late last year, the Senate Finance Committee began preliminary consideration of legalization in preparation for the 2021 session. “I certainly do think we’ll act on the issue, whether it’s more private or more state,” Sen. Ryan Pearson (D), who now serves as the panel’s chairman, said at the time.
The growing momentum in Rhode Island also comes as lawmakers in neighboring Connecticut are also moving toward legalizing marijuana this year. Gov. Ned Lamont (D) included a cannabis legalization plan in his budget request last month.
Lawmakers in New York passed legalization legislation in March that was promptly signed into law by Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D). Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D) said the legislation “is a momentous first step in addressing the racial disparities caused by the war on drugs that has plagued our state for too long.”
Meanwhile, the Rhode Island Senate approved a bill last month that would allow safe consumption sites where people could use illicit drugs under medical supervision and receive resources to enter treatment. Harm reduction advocates say this would prevent overdose deaths and help de-stigmatize substance misuse.
The Senate Judiciary Committee also held a hearing last month on legislation that would end criminal penalties for possessing small amounts of drugs and replace them with a $100 fine.
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Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan
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