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RI lawmakers debate marijuana legalization

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) -- On Tuesday night, the push to legalize recreational marijuana was taken to the state house. It's a controversial topic, but one that lawmakers are tackling.

It was the first legislative hearing on the proposal to legalize marijuana in Rhode Island. Similar meetings have been held every year since 2011 but non have resulted in a vote.

Supporters hoped Tuesday's meeting could change that, but many still remain conflicted over the issue.

Those for and against the legalization of marijuana spoke before the Hose Judiciary Committee Tuesday evening. Supporters expressed their interest in passing the bill this year, before marijuana stores begin opening in Massachusetts in July of 2018.

"We will not be reducing Rhode Island's access to marijuana. We will only be reducing our access to additional tax revenue and reducing access to good paying jobs," said Deputy Majority Leader Scott Slater.

With the help of 35 police chiefs in the state, Hopkinton Police Chief David Palmer compiled a report on the impacts of legalizing marijuana. At the forefront, he says legalization will only hurt the state's youth, who may have easier access to the drug. On a broader scale, Palmer says the legalization presents a public safety issue.

"I'd rather have the black market going to Massachusetts and not here to Rhode Island. Law enforcement is not equipped to combat impairment of marijuana like we do alcohol," said Chief Palmer.

Supporters of the legislation say restricting access here doesn't mean others won't obtain marijuana in Massachusetts, which would bring problems, but not economic benefit, back to Rhode Island.

A counter bill was also discussed, which would stop the legalization movement and create a study commission to make recommendations before moving forward. However, supporters say now is the time to strike and that this issue has been thoroughly studied already.

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