PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – A new plan to legalize recreational cannabis in Rhode Island was introduced in the House and Senate Tuesday, kicking off what will be months of debate before a final bill is potentially approved.
The new legislation, sponsored by state Rep. Scott Slater and state Sen. Josh Miller, includes a new framework to oversee the cannabis industry modeled on the system in New York state.
“This is a great day,” Slater told reporters Tuesday afternoon. “Last year we had some differences on our bills, but we’ve been able to come together and work collectively.”
The newly crafted plan is a result of talks between the two chambers but does not yet represent a compromise with Gov. Dan McKee.
Slater and Miller said the legislation has the support of House Speaker Joe Shekarchi and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio — Ruggerio even signed on as a co-sponsor — representing a significant step towards passing cannabis legalization this year. All four are Democrats.
The bills were referred to the House Finance and Senate Judiciary committees, respectively, and hearings were not immediately scheduled.
The identical bills in the House and Senate would allow adults 21 and older to possess up to an ounce of marijuana and grow small amounts of the plant at home, according to a summary of the bill. It would allow prior marijuana possession charges to be expunged, but only upon request of the convicted person.
A total of 33 cannabis retail stories would be allowed to open under the new proposal, a number that includes the impending nine compassion centers, which would be allowed to seek hybrid licenses to sell both medical and recreational marijuana.
Those medical dispensaries would be able to start selling recreational cannabis on October 1, according to the bill, as long as they pay a new hybrid licensing fee of $125,000.
The remaining 24 retail licenses would be awarded by a newly created three-member Cannabis Control Commission. The licenses would be distributed throughout the existing six geographic zones created by the state for the recent medical marijuana lottery.
The commission would issue four retail licenses in each zone, with at least one worker co-op and one social equity applicant selected in each zone.
But it’s unclear exactly how the new cannabis commission would decide which applicants get the licenses; the bill leaves it up to the new commission to decide, according to Slater. In contrast, McKee’s proposal, introduced as part of his budget bill last month, would utilize a random lottery to pick the retailers.
McKee’s bill would also keep oversight of the cannabis industry under the R.I. Department of Business Regulation, which already has a cannabis regulation office that currently runs the medical marijuana program.
The debate over who should oversee the licensing of retail stores has been the chief disagreement between Senate leaders and McKee, one that still has not been resolved.
But Miller and Slater downplayed the significance of the issue, noting there was little other outstanding disagreement between the legislators and the governor.
Asked Tuesday what he thinks of the new bill, McKee said he had not yet reviewed the legislation and would comment further once he has been briefed on the details.
The new House and Senate bill would still call for a cannabis office within DBR, staffed by the current cannabis regulators, to “advise and assist” the new Cannabis Control Commission. The commission would have all the power to actually make rules and regulations, award licenses and set fees, but could delegate tasks to staffers in DBR’s cannabis office.
A separate Cannabis Advisory Board made up of industry experts and political appointees would also make recommendations on policy to the commission.
The three members of the Cannabis Control Commission would be appointed by the governor, according to the bill, with Senate confirmation. But the governor would need to pick one member each from short lists provided by the House speaker and the Senate president. The governor would get the other pick, and would select the chair.
The new bill includes a two-year moratorium on new cultivation licenses, which are issued to businesses who grow cannabis and sell it to retailers. Rhode Island already has nearly 70 licensed cultivators, who are only currently able to sell to the existing compassion centers.
The two proposals on the table differ when it comes to expunging current marijuana records.
McKee’s bill would automatically expunge misdemeanor and felony possession charges, a top request from social justice groups that argue any legalization of marijuana should reverse the results of prohibition. The new Slater-Miller bill would require those convicted to request the expungement from the courts.
The lack of automatic expungement quickly drew opposition from a coalition of groups known as Yes We Cannabis, even as the coalition also praised the bill’s social equity components and worker co-ops.
“The criminalization of cannabis has done harm to so many families in our state, and we are grateful to see the legislature moving forward with a more sensible policy of legalization,” said Cherie Cruz, co-founder of the Formerly Incarcerated Union of R.I. “However, there is no excuse to deny automatic relief from past arrest records and criminal convictions to tens of thousands of Rhode Islanders who have been victims of this failed war on cannabis.”
Miller said the new bill’s process would be “virtually automatic,” likely with the ability to seek the expungement online. (The text of the bill leaves the process up to the chief justice of the Rhode Island courts.)
A new social equity fund would also be set up to help certain prospective cannabis retailers pay for expenses to set up a business. Licensing fees from other businesses would go into the fund, starting with the $125,000 hybrid licenses that would be issued to medical dispensaries this fall.
Like prior proposals, the new bill would tax cannabis at roughly 20%, with a new 10% cannabis tax on top of the existing 7% Rhode Island sales tax. The remaining 3% would be a local tax for the municipality where the marijuana is sold.
Cities and towns can opt out of being host to a marijuana shop, but must bring the question to voters this fall to do so under this proposal. Municipalities that opt out won’t be eligible for a share of the revenue, according to the bill.
The introduction of the new bill is yet another step closer to marijuana legalization in Rhode Island, a state sandwiched between two others – Massachusetts and Connecticut – that have already legalized use of the drug.
Supporters of legalization have repeatedly pointed out the large number of Rhode Islanders shopping across the border for cannabis in Massachusetts, and argue Rhode Island is receiving the effects of legal cannabis without any of the revenue.
Last year, Miller and Senate Majority Leader Michael McCaffrey sponsored a bill that passed the Senate in June, the first time a legalization bill was approved by any chamber of the General Assembly. The House did not take up the bill before the end of the session.