Raimondo will propose legalizing pot in RI

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo announced Sunday she will propose legalizing recreational marijuana in Rhode Island, joining other states across the Northeast in a rapid embrace of the policy.

Raimondo’s press secretary, Josh Block, confirmed Raimondo’s 2019-20 budget “will include the legalization and strict regulation of adult-use marijuana.” The governor is scheduled to release her budget plan on Thursday, two days after she delivers her annual State of the State address.

“As our neighboring states move forward with legal marijuana, the governor is mindful of its impacts on Rhode Island, from law enforcement to public health,” Block said. “Governor Raimondo’s priority is protecting the health and safety of Rhode Islanders, and her proposal will give Rhode Island the strongest regulatory framework for adult-use marijuana in the nation.”

Norman Birenbaum, the state’s lead regulator on medical marijuana, will give a detailed briefing on Raimondo’s plan Monday. (Medical marijuana has been legal in Rhode Island since 2007, though regulations on it have been tightened in recent years.)

A WPRI 12/Roger Williams University poll in October found 56% of Rhode Island voters thought the state should legalize recreational marijuana for people ages 21 and older, while 37% said no and 7% weren’t sure.

Legislative leaders are expected to greet the idea cautiously. House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello has said the state needs to look at legalization, though he has not embraced it outright, while Senate President Dominick Ruggerio has expressed more skepticism.

Mattiello, D-Cranston, said Sunday he has “mixed feelings.”

“I appreciate the governor’s viewpoints and I have expressed similar concerns about our neighboring states moving forward with legalization, leaving Rhode Island to bear the social costs without the benefit of the revenue,” the speaker said in a statement.

“My House colleagues have strong and differing viewpoints, and we will collectively assess the governor’s proposal and come up with a consensus pathway forward,” he added.

Ruggerio, D-North Providence, said in a statement, “While I continue to keep an open mind on legalization of recreational marijuana as the state looks into the regulatory and workforce challenges that come along with it, I also have significant concerns, particularly with regard to workforce issues, enforcement around edibles, and impact on children.”

“I will look to the experience in Massachusetts as legalization is implemented there, and proceed very cautiously as we continue to have this important public discussion,” he continued.

The decision marks a shift for Raimondo, who revealed her new position in an interview with The Providence Journal. She has long expressed reservations about legalization, citing conversations she has had with the governor of Colorado and concerns about the effects on young people.

“I do this with reluctance,” Raimondo told the newspaper. “I have resisted this for the four years I’ve been governor. … Now, however, things have changed, mainly because all of our neighbors are moving forward.”

The issue divides even progressive lawmakers in Rhode Island’s heavily Democratic General Assembly.

State Rep. Jason Knight, D-Barrington, said on last week’s Newsmakers he does not support legalization. “Personally, I frankly don’t care,” Knight said. “I think that it’s coming one way or the other. But my district doesn’t like it.”

State Rep. Kathy Fogarty, a South Kingstown Democrat who was appearing alongside Knight took the opposite position. “I would support it,” she said. “It’s happening in every other state.” But, she added, “I do think we need to shine a light on that, and who benefits and make money on that.”

Newly elected Democratic Attorney General Peter Neronha “intends to carefully review the governor’s proposed legislation” and will “work closely with the governor to ensure we are examining this issue from all angles,” spokesperson Kristy dosReis said in a statement.

“Attorney General Neronha recognizes that as surrounding states legalize the recreational use of marijuana, it is increasingly difficult for Rhode Island to do otherwise,” but “strong regulatory measures” are needed, dosReis said.

“Such measures should include protecting public health and safety in general and, in particular, preventing the marketing of marijuana to children; permitting law enforcement to effectively identify persons driving under the influence of marijuana, which is extraordinarily difficult at present; and committing adequate resources to address the adverse effects of legalization,” she said.

Massachusetts voters legalized recreational marijuana in a ballot referendum in 2016, and the state’s first pot shops recently opened to big crowds. The governors of Connecticut, New York and New Jersey are all promoting legalization.

Some experts are wary of the growing embrace of cannabis. Alex Berenson, a former New York Times reporter, argues in a forthcoming book that the drug’s negative effects are being downplayed or overlooked entirely as states rush to legalize it.

“Marijuana’s risks are different from opioids’, but they are no less real,” Berenson wrote earlier this month. “Let’s remember that hard truth as we listen to promises that allowing the use of this drug will do no harm.”

Federal law still prohibits marijuana, and none of the four Democrats in Rhode Island’s congressional delegation currently supports legalization at the federal level.

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He is a weekly panelist on Newsmakers and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook

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