Rhode Island lawmakers unveiled legislation to legalize cannabis for adults on Tuesday with the introduction of identical bills in the state Senate and House of Representatives. The measure introduced by state Senator Josh Miller and Representative Scott Slater would legalize possession and purchase of up to one ounce of cannabis, and establish a framework for regulated cannabis sales.
Senator Joshua Miller, the Senate Health and Human Services Committee chair and a longtime advocate of legalization, said on Tuesday that cannabis policy reform would be a boon for the state.
“The time for Rhode Island to move forward with cannabis legalization is now,” Miller said in a statement. “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.”
In addition to permitting possession of up to one ounce of cannabis in public, the legislation allows adults to possess up to 10 ounces of cannabis in a private location. The bill also permits adults to grow up to three immature and three mature plants at home.
The legislation would create a three-member cannabis control commission to oversee the state’s regulated cannabis industry. Once it is established, the new agency would also take on oversight of Rhode Island’s medical marijuana industry. The legislation also establishes a cannabis regulatory office and a cannabis advisory board within the Rhode Island Department of Business Regulation.
The bill allows for up to 33 cannabis retailers, including nine hybrid dispensaries that would carry both medical and recreational cannabis. Weed would be taxed a total of 20 percent, including a 10 percent cannabis excise tax, 7 percent sales tax, and a local tax of 3 percent that would go to local governments hosting licensed cannabis businesses. Jurisdictions could opt out of allowing retail cannabis businesses by placing a ballot question on the November ballot, but communities that vote to deny dispensaries will not be eligible for cannabis tax revenue.
Social Equity Provision Included in Bill
Miller noted that “equity is a central focus of this legislation.” The bill includes provisions to use licensing fees and penalties to fund grants and technical assistance to applicants from underserved communities and those harmed by the War on Drugs. The legislation also reserves one license in each of six retail districts for social equity applicants, and another in each district for a co-op form of retail store.
“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 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.”
Cannabis reform advocacy groups including the Formerly Incarcerated Union of RI, the Working Families Party, Reclaim RI, and the Marijuana Policy Project praised the social equity provisions of the bill, saying that worker-owned co-ops will give economically disadvantaged entrepreneurs a path to ownership in the legal cannabis industry. But they also called for restorative justice measures including automatic expungement of past marijuana convictions to be added to the legislation.
“The criminalization of cannabis has done harm to so many families in our state, and we are grateful to see the legislature moving forward with a more sensible policy of legalization,” said Cherie Cruz, co-founder of the Formerly Incarcerated Union of R.I. “However, there is no excuse to deny automatic relief from past arrest records and criminal convictions to tens of thousands of Rhode Islanders who have been victims of this failed war on cannabis.”
More Work to Do
After thanking Slater for his “tireless” effort on the legislation, House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi acknowledged that work still remains on the path to cannabis legalization.
“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. “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.”
Rhode Island and New Hampshire are the only two New England states that have yet to pass legislation to legalize recreational weed. In January, Gov. Dan McKee included a plan to legalize cannabis in his annual budget proposal.
Senate Majority Leader Michael McCaffrey said that lawmakers have “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.”
“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,” McCaffrey continued. “I look forward to working with my colleagues, stakeholders, and the public to ensure that we take the careful, nuanced, and equitable approach we need to transform this economic sector.”