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.”
California Governor Signs Marijuana Tax Fairness Bill But Vetoes Cannabis In Hospitals
California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) announced on Saturday that he signed several marijuana-related bills into law—including one that will let legal businesses take advantage of more tax deductions—but also vetoed another measure that would have allowed some patients to use medical cannabis in health care facilities.
Under a section of current federal law known as 280E, marijuana growers, processors and sellers are unable to deduct expenses from their taxes that businesses in any other sector would be able to write off. Until now, California policy simply mirrored the federal approach.
(Marijuana Moment’s editor provides some content to Forbes via a temporary exclusive publishing license arrangement.)
Photo courtesy of Carlos Gracia.
Former FDA Head Floats Federal Marijuana Regulation ‘Compromise’ To Address Vaping Issue
Former Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Commissioner Scott Gottlieb seems to propose changing the scheduling status of marijuana under federal law as a “compromise” to provide limited regulations and promote research.
In an op-ed published in The Wall Street Journal on Friday, Gottlieb said the recent spike in vaping-related lung injuries involving contaminated THC cartridges demonstrates the need for federal regulations.
While he expressed frustration over the “federal government’s decade-long refusal to challenge state laws legalizing pot,” he also recognized that enforcing prohibition in legal states isn’t politically practical and floated a “feasible compromise” that would “require Congress to take marijuana out of the existing paradigm for drug scheduling, especially if Congress wants to allow carefully regulated access for uses that fall outside FDA-approved drug indications.”
That language leaves room for interpretation, but he goes on to say that the “ship has probably sailed on legalization for recreational use” and that “regulation of the potency of THC compounds, the forms they take, how they’re manufactured, and who can make purchases ought to be possible.”
Gottlieb stopped short of explicitly backing descheduling, which would represent a formal end to federal prohibition. Still, his recommendation that the government control aspects of legal marijuana markets like THC potency is a more concrete position than he’s taken in recent weeks, where he’s repeatedly bemoaned the lack of regulations and the gap between state and federal cannabis laws as contributing to vaping issues without endorsing a specific policy to correct it.
It’s clear in the editorial that the former commissioner feels Congress has missed its opportunity to prevent the proliferation of state-legal cannabis programs. And he criticized the Obama administration for issuing guidance that offered states some assurances that the Justice Department wouldn’t interfere in their markets, as well as congressional riders barring the department from using its funds to enforce prohibition against medical cannabis patients and providers following state laws.
My Op Ed in today’s @WSJopinion – The tragic vape injuries involving THC demand that we consider a federal reckoning when it comes to the dangerous conflict between state and federal pot laws that leave federal regulators on sidelines https://t.co/HGptTfx8Db
— Scott Gottlieb, MD (@ScottGottliebMD) October 11, 2019
“The result is an impasse,” he wrote. “Federal agencies exert little oversight, and regulation is left to a patchwork of inadequate state agencies. The weak state bodies sanction the adoption of unsafe practices such as vaping concentrates, while allowing an illegal market in cannabis to flourish.”
One area where FDA might be able to exercise its regulatory authority in this grey space would involve oversight of vaping hardware. Because the agency is able to regulate the “components and parts” of vapes for tobacco use—and because companies generally market those products as being intended for the use of vaporizing herbs and concentrates generally—it could be argued that FDA has jurisdiction over regulating the devices. However, that would still prove challenging “without clear laws and firm political support,” Gottlieb said.
My Op Ed in @WSJopinion – The conflict between federal and state law when it comes to marijuana has created a dangerous gap in oversight. It's about time we consider a new federal paradigm when it comes to regulation of cannabis and its active ingredients https://t.co/QifVa5Dbfq
— Scott Gottlieb, MD (@ScottGottliebMD) October 13, 2019
“THC is currently illegal under federal law,” he said. “Right now there’s no middle ground allowing federal agencies to scrutinize these compounds for their manufacturing, marketing and safety.”
Again, it’s not exactly clear what kind of federal regulation Gottlieb is proposing to Congress. He spends part of his op-ed noting the difficulties scientists face in obtaining high quality cannabis for research purposes—an issue that policymakers have indicated rescheduling could resolve—but he also said the government should ensure that any reform move is “backed up with oversight and vigorous enforcement to keep a black market from continuing to flourish and causing these lung injuries.”
That’s led some to assume he’s talking about descheduling and providing for broad regulations, as regulating the market is largely viewed as a primary means of disrupting the illicit market and enforcing safety standards for marijuana products. But the continued ambiguity of his position raises questions about whether he’s actually proposing Congress should go that far.
“The protracted hand-wringing over federal cannabis policy must stop,” he said. “The tragic spate of fatalities related to vaping of pot concentrates means the time has come for Congress and the White House to stop blowing smoke and clear the air.”
Mexican Senate Committees Will Introduce Marijuana Legalization Bill Next Week
Mexican Senate committees will introduce an updated proposal to legalize marijuana for adult use within days.
During a meeting on Thursday, members of the Health, Justice, Public Security and Legislative Studies Committees announced that they would remain in permanent session as they go through various legalization bills that lawmakers have already filed and present a comprehensive new piece of legislation on Thursday.
Sen. Miguel Ángel Navarro Quintero of the ruling MORENA party, who is a cosponsor of one existing reform bill, said the development “is a positive step to regulate—it is definitely a positive step,” according to TV Aztecha.
The primary focus of the committees will be on legislation introduced by Interior Secretary Olga Sánchez Cordero last year, senators said. However, there are about a dozen other legalization bills on the table, including one to have the federal government control the marijuana market, and they said provisions of each proposal would be taken into consideration.
The panels will also look at public input and expert testimony—including a panel led by a former White House drug czar—that were gathered as part of a weeks-long series of cannabis events that the Senate organized.
“It is a backbone that we are taking into account,” Sen. Julio Menchaca of the MORENA party said of Sánchez Cordero’s bill, which the cabinet member filed while previously serving as a senator, adding that “each of the initiatives that different senators have presented are also very important.”
Quintero said “if we are committing an open parliament, all opinions must be taken into account, because if not, we would be simulating a process.”
If the committees are successful in advancing the legislation, that would put the chamber one key step closer to meeting a deadline imposed by the Supreme Court last year. After ruling that the country’s ban on possession and cultivation of cannabis by adults is unconstitutional, it gave lawmakers until the end of October to change federal drug policy.
The leader of the MORENA party in the Senate, Sen. Ricardo Monreal, said earlier this month that the chamber was on track to vote on a legalization bill ahead of that deadline.
Separately, the chairman of the Senate’s Agriculture Committee, Sen. José Narro Céspedes, said on Thursday that legalization will be an economic boon for farmers and must be implemented in a way that disrupts the illicit market.
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.