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RI Senate approves recreational marijuana bill

Politics

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The Rhode Island Senate became the first chamber of the General Assembly to ever vote in favor of recreational marijuana on Tuesday, though the legislation still has a ways to go before potentially becoming law.

The vote was 29 to 9.

The historic vote came on the same day that Connecticut’s governor signed marijuana legalization into law, leaving Rhode Island sandwiched between two states that have legalized cannabis for recreational use.

House Speaker Joe Shekarchi has already said the House won’t consider cannabis legalization before the current session ends, but may consider it in a special session in the fall. The House Finance Committee removed Gov. Dan McKee’s recreational marijuana proposal from the budget bill that’s set to be voted on by the full House on Thursday.

The Senate-approved bill does not represent a final compromise with House leaders and McKee, both of whom have said they’re not in a rush to legalize.

McKee said Tuesday he opposes the provision of the Senate bill that would create an independent Cannabis Control Commission, similar to Massachusetts, to regulate the marijuana program.

“That’s probably the main thing that we have a disagreement on,” McKee told reporters. “I’m not in favor of adding additional costs to government.”

He has proposed to keep cannabis regulated by the Department of Business Regulation, which already has an Office of Cannabis Regulation. Those existing regulators oversee Rhode Island’s medical marijuana program, including dispensaries and licensed cultivators that are expected to participate in the recreational market.

“This is not one of my highest priorities,” McKee added. “We’re not in a race with Connecticut or Massachusetts on this.”

But Senate leaders have expressed urgency, citing the fact that Rhode Islanders can easily cross the border to Massachusetts — and soon, Connecticut — to buy cannabis, potentially bringing social impacts to Rhode Island without any of the tax revenue.

“We’ve arrived at this point 10 years later than I would have liked,” state Sen. Josh Miller, D-Cranston said ahead of the Senate vote. “Cannabis will be legal in Connecticut next week.”

Senate President Dominick Ruggerio, who had opposed legalization in previous years, echoed Miller’s urgency in a tweet following the vote.

“The longer we wait to open a cannabis marketplace, the further behind we fall from a competitive standpoint,” Ruggerio said. “Thank you @SenatorMillerRI and @SenMcCaffrey for putting forth thoughtful legislation that will create a competitive cannabis economy with low barriers to entry.”

The Senate bill would allow adults 21 and older to purchase cannabis for recreational use, paying a 20% effective tax rate.

The Cannabis Control Commission would be in charge of licensing the retail stores to sell cannabis, with a requirement license three applicants per municipality, unless a town or city votes to ban marijuana stores. An additional one store per 20,000 residents could be approved for each municipality with more than 30,000 residents.

That could leave Rhode Island with up to 130 cannabis stores, according to a Senate calculation. Miller said the goal is to have a competitive marketplace, rather than a market controlled by just a few large entities. The bill would require one-third of licenses be issued to social equity applicants.

The legislation includes a moratorium on new cultivation until at least July 2023, since Rhode Island already has dozens of licensed growers who have so far only been able to sell their product to three medical dispensaries. (A lottery to select six new dispensaries has been delayed).

The nine voting against the bill included the Senate’s five Republicans, plus Democratic Sens. Lou DiPalma, Frank Lombardi, Lou Raptakis and James Seveney.

Speaking during the floor debate, Sen. Gordon Rogers, R-Foster, said he does not oppose legalization but is concerned about some aspects of the bill. He suggested having a centralized distribution center to serve as a hub between the cultivators and the retail stores, in order to simplify oversight.

He also said the proposed 3% municipal tax — which would go to the town or city where the cannabis is sold — should also be shared with municipalities that opt not to host pot stores.

Sen. Sam Bell, D-Providence, who voted in favor of the bill, said he hopes some aspects of a House bill sponsored by state Rep. Scott Slater could ultimately be incorporated, including the automatic expungement of past marijuana crimes.

The Senate bill sets up a process to petition for expedited expungement, but doesn’t make it automatic.

The legislation also includes a social equity fund that would help economically disadvantaged people enter the cannabis industry.

Speaker Shekarchi said last week the House has been focused on the budget, and there was not enough time left in the session to tackle cannabis.

“We all know that there might be another session,” Sen. Miller told 12 News after the vote. “But I think if people were interested, we could do it very quickly.”

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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