Voters in the nation’s smallest state could have a chance to send a big message about marijuana legalization this fall.
Under a new bill filed in the state House of Representatives on Wednesday, Rhode Islanders would be able to decide on a ballot measure calling for the end of cannabis prohibition.
“Do you support the legalization of possession and use of marijuana by persons who are at least 21 years of age, subject to regulation and taxation that is similar to the regulation and taxation of tobacco and alcohol?” the proposed question reads.
The proposal, filed by Rep. Scott Slater (D), would not automatically result in legalization if a majority of voters approved the question on Election Day. Rhode Island law allows only for nonbinding advisory statutory referendums, but a solid “yes” vote would likely spur lawmakers into more seriously considering cannabis legislation when they reconvene for the 2019 session.
Lawmakers in at least eight other states are considering bills to refer marijuana questions to voters.
The Illinois Senate, for example, approved legislation on Thursday to place a nonbinding marijuana legalization query on the November ballot. That question would read, “Shall the State of Illinois legalize the cultivation, manufacture, distribution, testing, and sale of marijuana and marijuana products for recreational use by adults 21 and older subject to state regulation, taxation and local ordinance?”
Separately, officials in Illinois’s most populous county decided to place a similar cannabis question before voters during this month’s primary election in which several candidates for governor and attorney general are campaigning on legalization.
In some states, activists can collect signatures to place questions on the ballot. But in others, only lawmakers can refer questions to voters.
Aside from possible legislatively referred referendums in Rhode Island and other states, it is expected that four or more states will see binding marijuana questions initiated by voters appear on ballots this year.
Oklahoma voters, for example, will decide on a medical cannabis measure during the state’s June 26 primary. Activists in Michigan are expected to qualify a full marijuana legalization measure for the November 6 general election ballot, and voters in Utah and Missouri are likely to see citizen-initiated medical marijuana questions when they go to the polls that day.
In Rhode Island, Gov. Gina Raimondo (D) is not opposed to legalization but wants lawmakers to carefully consider its implementation before moving ahead. In 2016, she said she is “open to” giving voters a chance to weigh in on the issue through a referendum.
And House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello (D), said at the time he was “considering the possibility of placing a non-binding referendum question on the ballot regarding the use of recreational marijuana.”
No such referendum proposal was introduced during that session, however, and advocates pushed for lawmakers to simply pass legislation legalizing cannabis. House and Senate committees held hearings on those proposals, but did not take any votes, and the bills died.
Slater’s new referendum proposal has been referred to the House Judiciary Committee, where it will presumably receive a hearing followed by a possible vote before being sent to the floor and then to the Senate.
Approval for legalization by voters at the ballot box this November would give a huge boost to efforts to pass legislation to end cannabis prohibition in 2019.
Regional developments also add to the pressure to change Rhode Island’s marijuana laws. Neighboring Massachusetts is set to begin legal cannabis sales this summer in line with a ballot initiative approved by voters there in 2016.
Next door, Connecticut lawmakers are also considering legalization. On Thursday, the General Assembly’s Appropriations Committee filed a bill that would direct state officials to “develop a plan to legalize and regulate the retail sale of marijuana.”
Meanwhile, legalization advocates are pushing Rhode Island lawmakers to pass a bill ending prohibition without having to refer the question to voters.
“While we are confident that a referendum would be approved by Rhode Island voters, we once again call on the General Assembly to pass legislation this year that legalizes marijuana possession for adults and begins the process of establishing a system for regulating and taxing the sale of marijuana,” Matthew Schweich, the executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project, said in an interview. “The longer Rhode Island waits, the more tax revenue goes to Massachusetts. Maintaining prohibition in Rhode Island will do nothing to limit the availability of marijuana to its residents other than increasing the amount of time it takes to drive to a legal dispensary.”