RI Senate committee approves recreational marijuana

Politics

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday approved a bill that would legalize, tax and regulate marijuana for recreational use, marking the first time such a bill has moved to the floor of either chamber of the General Assembly in Rhode Island.

The bill, which would create an independent cannabis control commission to oversee the program and issue licenses for cannabis retailers, passed 6 to 2. It’s expected to go to the full Senate next Tuesday.

Senators Lou Raptakis and Gordon Rogers voted against the bill in committee.

The legislation does not represent a compromise with the House and Gov. Dan McKee, the latter of whom has a different proposal for recreational cannabis included in his budget proposal currently being considered by lawmakers.

McKee’s proposal would keep oversight and control of the marijuana program, including licensing, within the R.I. Department of Business Regulation. His proposal would allow fewer stores to open at first and would ban home-growing, while the Senate bill would allow people to grow at home and allow for more stores.

“As the Governor has said, he would like to see his proposal on cannabis legislation in the final budget this year,” McKee’s press secretary Alana O’Hare said Monday.

But House Speaker Joe Shekarchi has also already said marijuana legislation won’t be included in the state budget, which usually passes in late June before the regular legislative session ends. A special session could be held over the summer or in the fall to consider marijuana, Shekarchi said last week.

Sen. Josh Miller, who has been introducing marijuana legalization for a decade that has never before been voted on, said he felt “a little vindicated” by the committee passage of his bill. But he noted that with Massachusetts legalizing years ago and Connecticut on the brink of legalizing marijuana as soon as this week, Rhode Island could be moving too slowly.

“I still feel it’s a little late,” Miller told 12 News after the vote. “I think there is a rush now, and I think 10 years of deliberating on it is long enough.”

The concern about Rhode Islanders flocking to neighboring states to purchase marijuana is why Senate leaders got behind legalizing for the first time this year. Senate Majority Leader Michael McCaffrey, who co-sponsored the bill with Miller, said Rhode Island would be getting all of the potential negative effects of cannabis use without any of the revenue.

The proposal would tax the drug at an effective rate of 20%.

The Senate committee amended the marijuana bill prior to passage, adding a moratorium on new cultivator licenses being issued until 2023. Rhode Island’s existing cannabis growers had been concerned about the original bill allowing more cultivation, since around 60 businesses are already cultivating cannabis with few places to sell it. (Marijuana is currently only legally sold at three medical dispensaries in Rhode Island.)

The amendment also added a provision to require cannabis retailers to use organized labor, or otherwise enter a “labor peace agreement” with a labor union. The provision was requested by unions that represent existing medical marijuana workers, Miller said.

The bill says applicants that have a collective bargaining agreement in place would receive preference from the cannabis commission.

A spokesperson for the Senate said six other states including California and New York have similar labor requirements in their cannabis statutes.

In addition, the bill amended the total number of cannabis stores that will be allowed per municipality, in response to concerns from larger cities and towns. The original bill would’ve allowed three stores per municipality plus one additional per 10,000 residents for municipalities with more than 30,000 residents. The amended bill changes it to one additional store per 20,000 residents.

The changes mean there could be up to 130 retail stores in Rhode Island, if no cities and towns opt out, according to a calculation by the the Senate. The bill allows municipalities to opt out via voter referendum.

Another change from the original proposal would require a third of the licenses be reserved for social equity applicants.

While a compromise on cannabis legislation has yet to emerge, Miller said he hopes having an approved bill in the Senate will speed up the process.

“There’s so much more clarity in having a bill pass committee that I think we can make progress fairly quickly,” he said.

Steph Machado (smachado@wpri.com) covers Providence, politics and more for WPRI 12. Connect with her on Twitter and on Facebook

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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