PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Gov. Gina Raimondo’s administration plans to strictly regulate the use of recreational marijuana if it is legalized this year, proposing to allow retail sales but ban home-growing, “high-potency” products and even edible gummy bears, a staple in other states with retail marijuana sales.
Raimondo announced Sunday she would be including recreational marijuana in her upcoming budget proposal, set to be released Thursday, citing the implementation of retail cannabis in neighboring states including Massachusetts.
“I do this with some reluctance,” Raimondo told Eyewitness News on Monday. “We’re going to face the public health and safety issues, like it or not, because it’s on our borders. So I wanted to make sure we had our own scheme to regulate it, to keep people safe.”
Norman Birenbaum, a policy director at the Department of Business Regulation and the administration’s point person on marijuana, detailed Raimondo’s proposal in a briefing with reporters Monday morning.
“Given how accessible this is going to be, we believe that we need to take our destiny in our own hands and control our future,” Birenbaum said. “So the governor has instructed the administration to come up with what we believe is the most proactive and strongest regulatory framework for adult-use marijuana in order to safeguard public health and public safety.”
Under the plan, a newly-created Office of Cannabis Regulation under the Department of Business Regulation would regulate the potency of the marijuana on the market, prohibiting high-potency cannabis products like “shatter” or butane hash oil except in certain medical cases.
Edible products like brownies or cookies would also be regulated in an effort to prevent them from being appealing to children, Birenbaum said. Retail license holders would be required to have their edible products approved by the Office of Cannabis Regulation, and kid-friendly packaging or shapes like gummy bears would not be allowed. Child-proof packaging would also be required.
Edible products would be limited to 5 milligrams of THC per serving, with a maximum of 20 servings per package sold, Birenbaum said.
Adults over 21 would be limited to purchasing one ounce at a time of marijuana, though they could possess up to five ounces at home.
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The proposal doesn’t place a limit on how many retail licenses will be given out, but does allow cities and towns to control, via a public referendum, whether they’ll have a retail store or not. Regardless of whether a municipality bans retail marijuana stores, Birenbaum said every city and town will get a slice of the revenue.
“We are going to be dedicating funds to municipalities whether they ban these licenses or not,” Birenbaum said. “Because we understand that the externalities of marijuana legalization impact cities and towns whether you have licenses there or not.”
If legalization passes the General Assembly, the Raimondo administration is projecting $6.5 million in revenue in the 2019-20 fiscal year, with retail stores opening as soon as January 2020. Existing medical marijuana dispensaries, known as compassion centers, would be able to get an expedited retail license.
Birenbaum said 25% of the revenue would go towards regulating the industry and “limiting the impact on public health and public safety,” via the Department of Health, the Department of Business Regulation and the Department of Public Safety. He said 15% of the revenue would go to cities and towns, with more money going to municipalities that have retail stores open. The remaining 60% of the revenue would go into the general fund.
The effective tax rate for consumers to buy cannabis would be about 20%, incorporating the 7% sales tax, a new 10% retail marijuana excise tax and a weight-based excise tax.
“Money is not the reason to do this, at all,” Raimondo said. “In fact, there isn’t very much money associated with the program.”
The Raimondo administration is choosing to ban home-growing, citing “many, many problems” in other states, including problems with regulating those who grow cannabis plants at home. Birenbaum said Washington is the only other state that allows recreational marijuana but bans home-growing, which is usually seen as a lower-cost way for people to use the drug.
Birenbaum said consumers also won’t be able to buy seeds or “active plants” in Rhode Island that can be used for cultivation. He said home-growing can result in marijuana ending up on the black market, or distributed to people under 21 who are not allowed to use it.
Defending the choice to ban home-growing, Birenbaum said: “Right now someone is not allowed to make a long list of products, stemming from firearms to pharmaceuticals. For those who liken this to homebrewing, I would challenge anyone to compare the market value of a gallon of home-brewed beer to a gallon container filled with marijuana. You’re talking about tens of dollars compared to thousands of dollars.”
Rhode Island already allows medical marijuana cardholders to grow marijuana at home, a system that Birenbaum said the administration wants to “tighten.” He said there have been abuses of the medical home-growing program, including people who exceed plant counts or distribute to unregistered individuals.
Matthew Schweich, the deputy director of the Marijuana Policy Project, told Eyewitness News Monday night his organization would like to see Raimondo reconsider the ban on home-growing operations.
“Most of the states that legalize allow for limited amount of home cultivation, including Massachusetts,” Schweich said. “From a policy perspective, we don’t see a need to outright ban home cultivation. However, we’re pragmatists, and we’re believers in incremental progress. We wouldn’t allow that to stop this whole effort.”
Raimondo will also be proposing to expand the number of compassion centers from three to nine in her budget, the second year in a row she has proposed to expand the program. (Last year she proposed 12 compassion centers, but lawmakers rejected the expansion.)
Birenbaum said the state would focus on improving the training for police Drug Recognition Experts, or DREs, who can spot impaired drivers via roadside evaluations.
The proposed law would also add saliva to the list of bodily fluids that can be chemical-tested by police, though Birenbaum said any roadside saliva test on the market would first need to be certified as accurate by the Department of Health before it can actually be used by police.
“We certainly are not proponents of legalizing,” said Sid Wordell, the executive director of the Rhode Island Police Chiefs’ Association. “But we can’t stick our head in the sand. We certainly agree with the governor that something needs to be done.”
Wordell said the association was not consulted about the framework that is being proposed this week, but was assured they would be part of the process moving forward. Still, he said the main concern was not having the “tools” needed to enforce drug DUIs on the roads.
“We have expressed concerns that the state hasn’t given the appropriate resources to regulate, monitor and enforce the current regulations in place for our current medical marijuana program and now we are going to allow the vast majority of our residents to possess and use marijuana?” Wordell said in a statement.
Outgoing State Police Col. Ann Assumpico, who is also the Director of Public Safety, issued a cautious statement expressing similar concerns about drivers who are under the influence.
“We will support any state and federal efforts to strengthen laws to identify and prosecute anyone found operating under the influence of marijuana, which puts the lives of other motorists at risk,” Assumpico said.
Providence Public Safety Director Steven Pare, who has previously opposed legalization, also said he was concerned about police not being able to accurately identify when someone is currently under the influence of THC, the active ingredient in marijuana.
“We need tools that can assist police officers in the detection of marijuana impairment,” Pare said in a statement. “While our neighboring states will have recreational marijuana, we recommend strong regulatory measures and oversight that can closely monitor the production and sale of the product in R.I. with strong law enforcement input.”
The state has hired Colorado-based consultant Freedman & Koski to advise on Rhode Island’s policies and review any legislation. The consulting firm will be paid $90,000 in 2019, according to the contract. Birenbaum said the consultants, Andrew Freedman and Lewis Koski, were key to the implementation of legalized marijuana in Colorado.
The proposal has an uncertain future in the General Assembly, where both House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio have urged caution in the past.
“I appreciate the governor’s viewpoints and I have expressed similar concerns about our neighboring states moving forward with legalization, leaving Rhode Island to bear the social costs without the benefit of the revenue,” Mattiello, D-Cranston, said in a statement on Sunday.
Ruggerio, D-North Providence, said he would keep an open mind but remains skeptical. He said Sunday he has “significant concerns, particularly with regard to workforce issues, enforcement around edibles, and impact on children.”
Massachusetts voters legalized cannabis in 2016, with the first retail stores opening late last year. A retail store in Fall River, just feet from the Rhode Island border, is expected to open as soon as this week.
Watch Gov. Raimondo’s State of the State on WPRI 12 and WPRI.com Tuesday at 7 p.m.
Susan Campbell, Dan McGowan and Caroline Goggin contributed to this report.