The Rhode Island Senate might have passed a bill to legalize marijuana this week, but a top House lawmaker says his chamber needs more time to resolve differences between competing reform proposals.
In an interview with The Boston Globe that was published on Thursday, House Speaker Joseph Shekarchi (D) was asked whether Rhode Island can “afford to wait” on legalization in light of cannabis-related developments in surrounding states like Connecticut and Massachusetts.
“Yes, absolutely we can and we should [wait] because all of the proposals are very divergent,” he said, referring to the Senate bill, a separate House one and another measure filed by the governor. “All of the proposals I’ve seen—in my opinion, and I’ve only scratched the surface of them because there’s so many of them—really come from very strong advocates for either the cultivators or the dispensaries. I have to look at that and what’s good for the state.”
“If we’re going to legalize recreational use of marijuana, we want to make sure the state gets its fair share,” the speaker said.
Shekarchi said there are “several issues” that need to be addressed before adult-use legalization advances in the House. Principally, he said, lawmakers must closely examine how much revenue the state could collect under the diverging proposals.
Social equity, licensing fees, labor agreements and home grow provisions are among the matters that still need to be settled before the speaker is comfortable moving a given reform bill, he said.
Listen to the speaker discuss next steps for marijuana reform, starting around 5:55 into the audio below:
“If we’re going to legalize this, does that mean that people who are in prison and convicted for marijuana possession should be having an automatic review of possible expungement? If we’re creating a whole new industry here, do we set aside one or two of these licenses for people in the minority community?” he said. “Those are the issues that we need to look at regarding marijuana, but the chief, most important issue is we want to make sure the state gets its fair share.”
Another main issue that’s yet to be resolved is who should regulate the recreational market—the state’s existing Department of Business Regulation or an independent cannabis commission.
“I don’t know if there’s a combination of the two” that could be agreed on, Shekarchi said, adding that “we’ll have to wait and see where everybody can come together.” That could take place in the fall, as he’s previously suggested.
“If we can’t [strike a deal], then we won’t,” he said. “I think you come back when you have productive things to do.”
The new comments come just days after the state Senate approved a legalization bill from Senate Majority Leader Michael McCaffrey (D) and Health & Human Services Chairman Joshua Miller (D), which they introduced in March. Gov. Dan McKee (D) also came out with his own legalization proposal shortly thereafter.
“It is important that we act expeditiously to enact a regulatory framework,” Miller said, noting policy changes in states like Connecticut, where the state’s governor signed a legalization bill into law on Tuesday.
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A third Rhode Island legalization measure was also recently filed on the House side by Rep. Scott Slater (D) and several cosponsors.
The governor, for his part, told reporters this week that while he backs legalization it is “not like one of my highest priorities,” adding that “we’re not in a race with Connecticut or Massachusetts on this issue.”
“I think we need to get it right,” he said, pointing to ongoing discussions with the House and Senate.
The the House Finance Committee discussed the governor’s proposal to end prohibition at a hearing in April.
The House speaker said recently that he views legalization as “inevitable,” but he told Politico that there are “many pressing matters before us” and he’s not sure if the chamber will have time to consider the cannabis measure.
Both the governor and the leaders’ legalization plans are notably different than the proposal that former Gov. Gina Raimondo (D) had included in her budget last year. Prior to leaving office to join the Biden administration as commerce secretary, she called for legalization through a state-run model.
McKee gave initial insights into his perspective on the reform in January, saying that “it’s time that [legalization] happens” and that he’s “more leaning towards an entrepreneurial strategy there to let that roll that way.”
Shekarchi, meanwhile, has said he’s “absolutely” open to the idea of cannabis legalization and also leans toward privatization.
Late last year, the Senate Finance Committee began preliminary consideration of legalization in preparation for the 2021 session, with lawmakers generally accepting the reform as an inevitability. “I certainly do think we’ll act on the issue, whether it’s more private or more state,” Sen. Ryan Pearson (D), who now serves as the panel’s chairman, said at the time.
Meanwhile, the Rhode Island Senate approved a bill in March that would allow safe consumption sites where people could use illicit drugs under medical supervision and receive resources to enter treatment. Harm reduction advocates say this would prevent overdose deaths and help de-stigmatize substance misuse.
The Senate Judiciary Committee also held a hearing in March on legislation that would end criminal penalties for possessing small amounts of drugs and replace them with a $100 fine.
Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.