PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Recreational marijuana is officially legal in Rhode Island, with adults over 21 now allowed to possess, use and grow cannabis.
Gov. Dan McKee signed a bill into law Wednesday afternoon that legalizes the plant, expunges past convictions and sets up a new framework for sales and taxation at state-sanctioned stores.
The governor’s signature comes the day after the General Assembly passed the legislation, and follows years of debates regarding the legalization of the drug.
Rhode Island is the 19th state in the nation to legalize the drug for recreational use.
“This bill successfully incorporates our priorities of making sure cannabis legalization is equitable, controlled and safe,” McKee said, also describing it as “a win for our state both socially and economically.”
Watch: Gov. McKee signs bill legalizing recreational marijuana in RI (Story continues below.)
“The reality is that prohibition does not stop cannabis use,” said Sen. Josh Miller, who has introduced legalization bills in the Senate for a decade. “With this bill, we are ending prohibition in a way that is safe, keeps revenue in Rhode Island, and is as fair and equitable as we can possibly make it.”
The law immediately legalizes marijuana possession statewide, though retail sales won’t start until December. Recreational users will also be able to grow up to six plants at home, three of which can be mature.
The possession limits are one ounce in public, and ten ounces total at home.
State Rep. Scott Slater, D-Providence, the lead House sponsor, said he was most proud of the social equity components of the law. While the first retail licenses will go to existing medical dispensaries, future store licenses are set aside for low-income applicants and worker co-ops.
“The starting line isn’t the same for people in poor, urban and minority communities, and they deserve support to ensure they get the full benefit of participating in legalization,” Slater said.
Slater and Miller helped lead negotiations for a compromise bill between the two chambers, after the Senate became the first to approve cannabis legalization last year. The resulting legislation came out in March, and was further updated this month.
Among the changes was the addition of a state-initiated expungement of past marijuana crimes, which in the original bill would have required people to petition the court for the expungement.
The “automatic” method will still take a while — the bill gives the courts until July 1, 2024 — so people who want their expungement sooner can still petition the court.
Slater praised State Rep. Leonela Felix, D-Pawtucket, who helped push for the expungement process that ended up in the final bill.
Felix told 12 News she had a 2006 drug arrest expunged years ago as part of a state program, but still had to fight to get police departments to respect the expungement and take her record out of their systems.
“I didn’t want my community to have to go through that burden,” Felix said. “Especially when we’re going to be receiving a lot of revenue from the legalization of cannabis.”
She said she felt her personal experience with expungement helped convince legislative leaders to get on board with a state-initiated expungement plan, which she said has shown in other states to result in many more expungements than a petition-based model.
“I sought to bring my experience in dealing with expungement and having my record cleaned, the limitations I had when I had my criminal record, and the opportunities that I had afterward,” Felix said. (In addition to being an elected official, Felix is also an attorney who works for the city of Providence.)
McKee also noted that his own cannabis plan introduced as part of his budget this year would have included state-initiated expungement.
That budget bill will need to be amended to incorporate the new cannabis plan.
It’s not clear yet how much money marijuana will bring into the state under the latest version of the legislation.
An earlier fiscal note estimated that in the 2023-24 fiscal year, the first full year of sales, the state would bring in $14 million in new revenue, and cities and towns would receive about $2.5 million.
More than $5 million of the state’s revenue would go towards administering the cannabis program, which involves about two dozen new state employees. Decisions have not yet been made about how to spend the rest of the money.
Consumers will pay the 7% sales tax on cannabis sales, plus a new 10% cannabis tax and a 3% local tax to the town or city where the store is located.