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RI marijuana legalization in limbo as end of legislative session nears

Politics

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Efforts to legalize recreational marijuana in Rhode Island this legislative session are in limbo, with just weeks left in the session and a compromise yet to emerge between backers of three different bills for how to regulate a legal cannabis market.

While Senate leaders say they still hope to bring something to a vote before the session wraps, House Speaker Joe Shekarchi said Wednesday the issue may be pushed to a special session later this year, a sentiment recently echoed by Gov. Dan McKee.

“Marijuana legalization will not be decided until after the budget is adopted this month,” Shekarchi said Wednesday. “It is possible we will return sometime in the summer or fall.”

The legislative session is expected to end the last week in June, according to a House spokesperson.

Recreational cannabis had more support than ever on Smith Hill this year, with Senate leaders getting behind it for the first time. But the early momentum has not led to a compromise bill, nor a vote scheduled on any of the proposals under consideration.

Senate Majority Leader Michael McCaffrey joined state Sen. Josh Miller — a longtime supporter of legalizing cannabis — in putting forward a proposal in March that would create an independent Cannabis Control Commission to license marijuana businesses and control the program, similar to Massachusetts.

McKee’s proposal, included in his budget bill also introduced in March, would keep the program under the control of the R.I. Department of Business Regulation and issue fewer licenses, utilizing a random lottery system to pick 25 cannabis stores initially. The Senate bill would allow as many as 150 stores based on a town-by-town calculation, and would have the new cannabis commission approve applicants on a rolling basis.

“I’m very comfortable with what we presented in our budget for many reasons including the way it would be managed out of DBR,” McKee told reporters last week. “I wouldn’t be surprised if this is something that gets carried over maybe to a fall session.”

“I want the time to actually make sure that the due diligence is put in so it does come out right,” he added.

In an interview Wednesday, McCaffrey and Miller pointed out that Connecticut lawmakers appear to be on the brink of legalizing marijuana there, meaning both of Rhode Island’s neighboring states could have recreational cannabis while it remains illegal — but still widely used — here.

“Something could be signed by the governor … by the end of this week in Connecticut,” Miller said. “We’ll be surrounded by legal recreational cannabis.”

“I think that we should act sooner rather than later before we end up with a marketplace that is based in Rhode Island on no revenue to Rhode Island, all the legal cannabis is through Connecticut and Massachusetts or our black market, which would be worst-case scenario,” he added.

Connecticut’s state Senate passed a legalization bill on Tuesday, which is now in the hands of the House.

The senators say they are willing to amend their proposal to delay any new cultivation of cannabis, something that existing licensed marijuana growers were concerned about.

There are currently about 70 businesses licensed to legally cultivate cannabis in Rhode Island, but the state has not accepted new applications in years since the cultivators are only allowed to sell their product to three existing marijuana dispensaries currently operating in the state.

The McKee bill continues a moratorium on new cultivation, while the Senate bill as originally proposed would have allowed the new Cannabis Control Commission to determine whether to issue more cultivator licenses.

The cannabis commission is among the differences being worked out between the Senate and McKee.

“We feel it’s important to have a separate commission in one form or another,” McCaffrey said.

Adding to the discussion, state Rep. Scott Slater introduced his own 11th-hour legalization bill in late May, which incorporates some elements of both the other bills. It also reflects feedback from the R.I. League of Cities and Towns, the existing marijuana cultivators and advocates for social equity.

Slater, like Miller, has introduced marijuana legalization bills for years that has never made it to the floor.

“I’m definitely optimistic,” Slater said Wednesday. “I think it’s something that’s here, it’s not going anywhere.”

Slater’s bill would allow the fewest number of stores, at just 15, which includes nine existing medical dispensaries that would be allowed to get a hybrid license to sell recreational pot. (Three medical dispensaries currently exist, while six more are slated to be pulled from a lottery later this summer.)

The other six recreational stores in the Slater bill would include five “social equity” applicants and at least one worker co-op, which will be selected using a random lottery. Slater’s bill would also keep the oversight of the program in the Department of Business Regulation.

“I don’t think Massachusetts’ experience with the Cannabis Control Commission has been really that great,” Slater said. “Why create another level of bureaucracy?”

All three bills include a roughly 20% tax rate, with some differences in how the revenue will be split up between municipalities and the state.

Slater’s bill includes the automatic expungement of marijuana-related criminal records for offenses that are no longer criminal such as possession, while the Senate bill would require people to apply for expungement. Slater also proposes repealing taxes on medical marijuana to relieve the burden on patients while taxing those who are using cannabis for recreational use.

“Rep. Scott Slater recently introduced legislation, and out of respect for his hard work on this issue, we will be holding a hearing,” Shekarchi said Wednesday. “There is no consensus yet on the very different proposals from Rep. Slater, the Senate and the governor, and many other advocates have also weighed in with their ideas.”

But the senators expressed optimism that the three proposals are not so far apart that they won’t be able to find common ground.

“We’re working on it, and we’re going to keep our fingers crossed,” McCaffrey 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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