RI leaders close to consensus on legalizing cannabis

Politics

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Rhode Island leaders are inching closer to a agreement on legalizing recreational marijuana, but have still not settled on what sort of governing body will oversee, regulate and issue retail licenses in the potentially lucrative market for legal cannabis.

State Sen. Josh Miller, the lead sponsor of a recreational marijuana bill that passed the Senate in June, said the sticking point in negotiations remains whether a separate cannabis commission should be formed — as called for by the Senate bill — or if the retail program should be overseen by the R.I. Department of Business Regulation.

Target 12 has learned the State House negotiations have included discussion about a combination of the two structures, with the group looking at New York’s new legal cannabis structure as a possible model.

Several other disagreements have been generally settled, Miller said Tuesday. The possibility of up to 150 cannabis shops envisioned by the original draft of the Senate bill has been whittled down significantly to something in the dozens, he told a crowd during a Media & Politics Cafe about cannabis policy at Johnson & Wales University.

“We’re probably down to more in the 30, 40 range,” he told the audience, noting that he had to “dodge and weave” around some of their specific questions because of the ongoing negotiations. (A 12 News reporter also participated in the panel.)

Gov. Dan McKee’s proposal earlier this year called for licensing 25 stores per year for three years, while a House bill sponsored by state Rep. Scott Slater would have capped the number of stores at 15. The Senate bill originally called for a minimum of three stores per municipality — other than those whose voters opted out — plus additional stores based on the population of each town or city.

Member of the Senate, House and the governor’s staff have been negotiating privately on a possible deal on cannabis legislation for months, after the three failed to reach agreement before the end of the regular session. Top leaders said at the time there could be a special fall session to consider cannabis if a deal is reached, a prospect that appears less likely now, but not off the table.

Senate President Dominick Ruggerio said in an interview last month the negotiators were “very close” to agreement, but not quite there yet.

Miller said all parties in the negotiations have also agreed to include expungement of marijuana crimes in any legislation, though the specifics of which crimes would be expunged and what the process would be is still being worked out. A social equity component to licensing is also expected to be included.

He said the group has also agreed to a temporary moratorium on additional cultivation until the market can be evaluated, as supply is available from dozens of cannabis growers already licensed in Rhode Island. (The cultivators have strongly lobbied against allowing more cultivation, since the existing businesses currently have very few options to legally sell their product.)

In an email, McKee’s press secretary Alana O’Hare said, “As you know the governor supports recreational cannabis and his team has been actively working with our partners in the General Assembly on a bill that is equitable and benefits Rhode Island. The conversations are ongoing and we are hopeful that an agreement can be reached.”

She declined to comment on the details of the negotiations.

Larry Berman, a spokesperson for House Speaker Joe Shekarchi, confirmed that leaders are looking at New York’s new law but also studying other states such as Massachusetts and Connecticut.

While Massachusetts has an independent Cannabis Control Commission to license and regulate cannabis retailers, New York created a five-member board alongside the office of cannabis management, with each taking on duties in regulating and administering the program. (New York’s new cannabis board meets for the second time this week, where it will consider specific regulations for that state’s new system.)

Berman said Shekarchi would be in favor of a compromise on the structure that the Senate and McKee would support.

The group most recently met last week. Any bill that comes out of negotiations would need to be approved by the full House, Senate and signed by McKee.

Rep. Scott Slater, who is representing the House in the negotiations, did not return a phone call seeking comment.

Rhode Island currently regulates medical marijuana through the Department of Business Regulation.

Previous House, Senate and McKee versions of cannabis bills have all proposed to tax the drug at about 20%, with some differences in how the revenue will be split up between municipalities and the state.

Steph Machado (smachado@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter covering Providence, politics and more for 12 News. 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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