PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The General Assembly voted Tuesday to legalize recreational cannabis, paving the way for Rhode Island to become the 19th state to do so once Gov. Dan McKee signs the bill.
The historic votes took place after years of debate about legalizing the drug, which Rhode Island has allowed for medical use since 2006. The governor’s office said McKee will sign the bill Wednesday afternoon — making marijuana possession legal for adults ages 21 and older at the stroke of his pen.
House Finance Committee Chairman Marvin Abney, D-Newport, said the final bill was the product of “months of intense negotiation and collaboration with numerous stakeholders.”
“This bill represents a solid foundation for the regulation of the cannabis industry within our state,” Abney said. “This is a good, strong, fair and equitable bill.”
The House debate saw multiple Democrats rise to join Republicans in opposition to the leadership-backed legalization bill, citing reasons that ranged from sending children the wrong message to how the move will affect the defense industry.
“Just because something is legal doesn’t mean that it’s ethical or moral,” said state Rep. Camille Vella-Wilkinson, D-Warwick.
State Rep. Leonela Felix, D-Pawtucket, pushed back at criticism from police leaders who have suggested law enforcement will struggle to deal with wider use of the drug. “We will figure it out when it comes to driving under the influence of cannabis,” she said. “Just like we figured out alcohol.”
Roughly a dozen Rhode Island police chiefs lined the back wall of the gallery above the legislators, silently expressing their opposition to the measure.
“One representative recently, who I respect very much, asked me … why do you hate weed so much?” said Rep. Thomas Noret. “It’s not that I hate weed. I don’t approve of this legislation because law enforcement has no real way of testing in the field for marijuana when someone is stopped.”
But Rep. Scott Slater, D-Providence, the lead sponsor of the bill, pointed out that the bill does not legalize driving under the influence, and the tools that officers have — including drug recognition efforts — remain the same.
“It’s illegal to drive impaired,” Slater said. “This isn’t a new plant that I’m introducing. People that are using are probably using right now. I hope they’re not driving.”
State Rep. David Place, R-Burrillville, offered an unsuccessful amendment to lower the proposed tax on marijuana to match the standard 7% sales tax. “The primary benefit of legalization, to my mind, is the elimination of the black market and all the corresponding costs that go along with the black market,” he said. “And we don’t do that with this bill.”
Recreational cannabis legislation has been introduced every year for the past decade, but started receiving serious consideration more recently as top legislative leaders started to get on board. Many have cited the easy access to retailers over the border in Massachusetts as an impetus to legalize and tax the plant in Rhode Island.
Once the bill is signed into law, there will be just one New England state left — New Hampshire — that prohibits the drug.
The bill approved Tuesday would legalize possession of marijuana as soon as McKee signs it, while sanctioned sales of cannabis are slated to start in December. Recreational users will also be able to grow cannabis at home, with plant limits.
The three existing medical marijuana dispensaries — in Providence, Warwick and Portsmouth — will be able to convert into hybrid retailers by December 1, as will the six additional proposed medical dispensaries recently selected from a state lottery. (It’s not clear how many of the six might be up and running by December.)
The legislation calls for a maximum of 33 stores total, though it could take years for the others to open. The bill creates a new Cannabis Control Commission that would be responsible for overseeing and regulating the entire industry, including deciding how to select the retailers that will be licensed to sell marijuana.
While the bill does not say how those retailers will be selected, it does require that they be spread out geographically, and it sets aside some licenses for social equity applicants and worker co-ops.
How to structure the new commission was one of the issues that held up the bill last year and was the focus of negotiations in recent months. McKee — and his predecessor as governor, Gina Raimondo — both preferred to keep regulation of cannabis within the Department of Business Regulation, which currently controls the medical program.
The compromise structure that emerged earlier this year would create a cannabis office within DBR to assist the new Cannabis Control Commission in overseeing the industry. A separate cannabis advisory board would also be created to help decide how to spend funds from the “social equity assistance fund,” where some of the licensing fees will be deposited.
Social equity was a major component of the discussions, as advocates pushed for the lucrative industry to be accessible to those who are lower-income or have been affected by marijuana prohibition. (Unlike a traditional business, cannabis start-ups are unlikely to get bank loans, making it difficult to open a business without significant capital from investors or personal wealth.)
The legislation will also automatically expunge tens of thousands of marijuana possession charges, a process that could take up to two years. Those who want their expungements faster will be able to request them from the court.
Craig Berke, a spokesperson for the Rhode Island courts, said approximately 27,000 standalone possession charges have been identified dating back to the 1970s, not counting cases where possession was charged alongside other crimes.
In the latter cases, of which there are also tens of thousands, the courts will have to extract the marijuana possession charges to expunge them.
Berke noted that cases from before 2005 are not digitized. “So there will be hand searches involved,” he said.
The expungement process is estimated to cost $340,000 in the first year.
Cannabis sales will be taxed at roughly 20% under the new law, which includes the 7% sales tax, a new 10% cannabis tax and a 3% tax to the town or city where the store is located.
Municipalities will be able to ban sales of marijuana by voter referendum this fall. But towns and cities that already have a marijuana dispensary will not be allowed to ban further stores.
Towns and cities can also ban public smoking and vaping by ordinance, and property owners — including landlords — can choose to prohibit smoking marijuana on their properties.
Ted Nesi (email@example.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter and 12 News politics/business editor. He co-hosts Newsmakers and writes Nesi’s Notes on Saturdays. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook