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Rhode Island Lawmakers Rally Behind Marijuana Equity Agenda As Legalization Talks Continue For Special Session



A group of lawmakers in Rhode Island are rallying behind a set of key equity principles they want to see in marijuana legalization legislation—and they’re urging colleagues to convene a special session to see their vision through.

The idea of a special session this fall has already been floated by legislative leaders, and negotiators have been meeting throughout the summer to resolve differences between competing legalization bills in the House and Senate, as well as a separate proposal from Gov. Daniel McKee (D).

Several lawmakers and progressive activists with Reclaim Rhode Island say, as currently drafted, the measures do not do enough to repair the harms of the drug war and promote social equity. The organization held a press conference outside of the State House on Wednesday to draw attention to their reform agenda, with legislators speaking in favor of tackling legalization comprehensively and quickly during a special session.

Rep. Leonela Felix (D) was among those who spoke on Wednesday, stating that “if we chose to legalize cannabis in Rhode Island without full restorative justice for the black, brown and low-income Rhode Islanders who are targeted and imprisoned because of the racist war on drug policy, we have failed.”

She tempered expectations about the potential timing of a special session, however, saying she feels there’s a 70 percent chance that it won’t happen in the fall. However, she told The Boston Globe that she’s “hoping we actually can come in and we can get this done before the end of the year.”

Activists with Reclaim Rhode Island have outlined what they consider to be essential provisions of any legalization legislation that ultimately advances. That includes automatic expungements of prior cannabis convictions, setting aside 50 percent of marijuana business licenses for social equity applicants and 25 percent for worker-owned co-ops and requiring unionization for cannabis laborers.

In general, lawmakers did aim to promote equity in their various proposals last session, but none went as far as the activists want. But 15 legislators so far have signed on to the group’s Marijuana Justice statement.

“We can’t reverse the harm of the war on drugs, but we can start to repair it by passing automatic expungement and waiving all related fines, fees and court debt,” Rep. Karen Alzate (D), chair of the Rhode Island Legislative Black and Latino Caucus, said at Wednesday’s rally, according to a video captured by Uprise RI. “This bold legalization plan offers us the chance to turn a new leaf for the Ocean State, and it’s time we take it.”

“It is not enough to legalize marijuana and think we have undone years of harm in low-income communities through the war on drugs,” Sen. Tiara Mack (D) said. “We must be intentional about how we bring legal and accessible marijuana to our state by investing in communities, providing opportunities for those most impacted by the war on drugs.”

Senate President Dominick Ruggerio (D) told The Globe on Wednesday that he does feel that the legalization bill that was approved in the Senate in June contained “very strong social justice provisions” and the expungements provision is “as close to automatic as practical.”

Reclaim Rhode Island isn’t the only group pushing lawmakers to expeditiously work to pass legalization. It’s part of a coalition of 10 civil rights and drug policy reform advocacy groups—including the Rhode Island chapters of the ACLU and NAACP—that recently demanded that lawmakers move ahead with enacting marijuana reform in the state before the end of 2021.

House Speaker Joe Shekarchi (D) said in July that while there’s not yet a consensus among legislators and the governor on a deal to legalize marijuana, it’s still a “workable” issue and would be prioritized if negotiations succeed this summer and a special session is convened this fall.

The speaker told The Globe on Wednesday that bicameral negotiators “are continuing to have productive discussions about the significant policy implications associated with legalizing marijuana for personal use, including, but not limited to, some of the issues raised today at the press conference” by activists and lawmakers.

Rep. Scott Slater (D), for his part, recently told Marijuana Moment that “things are still where they were” prior to the end of session. Lawmakers are “trying to figure out a reconciliation between my bill, the Senate’s and the governor’s.”

Meetings over the summer have been “mostly informal” so far, the representative said. “I think we can get there before next year. It will not be perfect, and I am sure a work in progress.”

Ruggerio said in July that he’s not disappointed the House hasn’t advanced legalization legislation yet and that “what we really wanted to do was send it over and have them take a look at it” when his chamber passed its cannabis reform measure.

Shekarchi, for his part, previously said that he feels reform is “inevitable.”

A key disagreement between the House, Senate and governor’s office concerns who should have regulatory authority over marijuana. Ruggerio was pressed on the issue during a recent interview and said members of his chamber agree that “a separate commission is the way to go with respect to this.”

The House and McKee, on the other hand, want the program to be managed by the state Department of Business Regulation (DBR). Ruggerio noted that “it was difficult to negotiate on a bill when the House bill really didn’t come until late in the session.”

Senate Majority Leader Mike McCaffrey (D) was also recently asked about provisions related to allowing local municipalities to opt out of allowing marijuana businesses to operate in their area. He said “once the legislation is passed and whatever form is passed in, the communities have an opportunity to opt out.”

“They have an opportunity to opt out if the community doesn’t want to participate in it,” he said. “That’s their decision—however, they don’t get the funds that would come from the sales in that community.”

The majority leader also noted that neighboring states like Connecticut and Massachusetts have enacted legalization, and that adds impetus for the legislature to pursue reform in the state.

Shekarchi, meanwhile, said in July that he doesn’t intend to let regional pressure dictate the timeline for when Rhode Island enacts a policy change. Social equity, licensing fees, labor agreements and home grow provisions are among the outstanding matters that need to be addressed, the speaker said.

The House Finance Committee held a hearing on Slater’s legalization measure in June.

The governor, for his part, told reporters 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 House Finance Committee discussed the governor’s proposal to end prohibition at an earlier hearing in April.

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 governor in July signed a historic bill to 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. Rhode Island is the first state to allow the facilities.

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.

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Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.

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