PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — An updated version of marijuana legislation on the fast track toward passage at the State House would include automatic expungement for past cannabis crimes, and a delay in the start of retail sales until December.
The amended proposal, released Tuesday afternoon, is scheduled to be voted on Wednesday by both the Senate Judiciary Committee and the House Finance Committee. If approved, the legislation will go to the House and Senate floors next week.
State Sen. Josh Miller and state Rep. Scott Slater, the lead sponsors in their respective chambers, celebrated the agreement as a “fair and equitable” bill that addresses social equity concerns while ending the prohibition on cannabis.
“For me this has been about a 10-year effort, so it’s nice to wrap it up,” Miller, D-Cranston, told reporters shortly before the bill was released.
One of the more significant amendments to the bill, according to a summary of the changes, is that it would automatically expunge prior civil or criminal marijuana possession charges, now that possession of the drug will be legal. The original bill would have required people to request the expungement from the court, which raised objections from advocates.
The new version of the bill gives the courts until July 1, 2024, to automatically expunge past convictions, and allows people who want their expungement sooner to still request it.
The sprint to the finish line on marijuana legalization comes after months of negotiations over the final language of the bill. House and Senate leaders came to an agreement on the framework in March — a significant breakthrough from prior years — while Gov. Dan McKee, who has his own proposal in his budget bill, raised objections.
In a statement Tuesday afternoon, McKee’s office thanked General Assembly leaders for addressing his concerns about separation of powers in their new bill.
“While this bill is different than the governor’s original proposal – it does accomplish his priorities of making sure legalization is equitable, controlled, and safe,” McKee spokesperson Matt Sheaff said in an email. “We look forward to reviewing the final bill that comes out of the General Assembly and signing legalization of adult-use cannabis into law.”
McKee’s concerns were focused on the new Cannabis Control Commission, which would be a new independent entity to oversee the cannabis industry. The commission would have the power to issue licenses to cannabis retailers and cultivators and set regulations, something that is currently the responsibility of the Department of Business Regulation in the existing medical marijuana market.
McKee’s office argued the original bill’s process — calling for the governor to appoint the commission’s members from lists provided by the House speaker and Senate president, which would then be approved by the Senate — violated the state constitution’s separation of powers provision, as did the requirement that the Senate approve the removal of any commissioners.
Common Cause Rhode Island, a good-government group, agreed with McKee on the separation of powers issue, arguing legislative leaders were seeking powers granted to the executive branch.
The amended bill released Tuesday removes the list of potential appointees provided by the Senate president, according to Slater and Miller, and continues to give the Senate power to confirm the commissioners. It also deletes the Senate’s power to approve of any removal of a commissioner.
The amended structure still violates the separations of powers provision, said John Marion, Common Cause’s executive director.
“The Cannabis Control Commission is still constitutionally defective because the governor is asked to pick one of the three commissioners from a list given to him by the Speaker of the House,” Marion said. “The Senate asserted that the original bill passed constitutional muster, but the fact that they changed several provisions in response to previous criticism is an admission that their argument didn’t rest on firm ground.”
A coalition of social-justice groups applauded the bill’s changes, which they said would “ensure Rhode Islanders won’t suffer under criminal records for something that is no longer a crime.”
“The inclusion of state-initiated expungement in any framework of cannabis legalization is one of the most important concrete steps to work towards social justice, equity and repairing the harm of the failed war on drugs to so many impacted Rhode Islanders,” said Cherie Cruz of the Formerly Incarcerated Union of Rhode Island.
Under the proposal, possession of recreational cannabis and home-growing of the drug would become legal right away once McKee signs the marijuana bill into law. But sales in stores would not start until Dec. 1, a delay from the original bill’s plan of Oct. 1.
Rhode Island’s existing medical marijuana dispensaries — three are open, and six new ones are trying to get up and running — would be able to transition to hybrid stores first, selling both medical and recreational products.
It would take a while longer for other stores to open after that. The new Cannabis Control Commission is charged with coming up with the process for issuing new licenses for up to 33 stores total, a number that includes the hybrid medical stores.
While the bill does not prescribe a process for how the commission should select the retailers, both Slater and Miller said they hope it’s a merit-based process, rather than the random lottery that was used to recently select new medical dispensaries.
The amended bill also eliminates a host of fees that medical marijuana patients have to pay, including the cost to get a medical card and plant tags. Medical patients argued that once recreational users can shop in stores and grow at home, they should no longer have to pay those fees to purchase and grow medical cannabis.
Recreational home-growers would still be required to pay for plant tags, according to the sponsors.
Much of the rest of the bill remains the same. The legislation calls for a 20% tax rate, split up into the 7% sales tax, a new 10% cannabis tax, and a 3% tax by the municipality where the marijuana is sold.
Towns and cities would only be able to opt out of cannabis sales through a voter referendum this fall. (If they already have a dispensary open in town, they won’t be able to opt out.)
Local city and town councils will be able to ban public smoking or vaping by ordinance, which would not require voter approval.
A series of social equity provisions remain unchanged in the bill, including provisions for worker co-ops and a social equity fund to help pay for licensing fees, allowing more people to access the lucrative industry.
Steph Machado (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Target 12 investigative reporter covering Providence, politics and more for 12 News. Connect with her on Twitter and on Facebook.