As top lawmakers in Rhode Island increasingly discuss the prospects of legalizing marijuana in 2021, a key Senate committee is now set to take up the issue during a hearing on Wednesday.
The Senate Finance Committee announced that it will convene virtually to get testimony on aspects of a budget proposal from the governor, focusing “particularly” on a provision to legalize cannabis for adult use through a state-run model as well as two other unrelated policies.
But while advocates are encouraged by the development, the hearing isn’t expected to translate into legislative action this year and will primarily inform the legislature’s approach in the next session. The more likely possibility is that lawmakers will work to enact the reform in 2021, after new leadership that has signaled interest in the issue is installed.
Senate Finance Committee to meet virtually on Wednesday evening to hear budget articles on marijuana, insurance https://t.co/ES3YGQ9sqf
— Rhode Island Senate (@RISenate) November 16, 2020
Interest in pursuing legalization seems amplified under incoming leaders, with several top legislators saying in recent days that they will be addressing the policy in the new year.
Rep. Joseph Shekarchi (D), who was voted to serve as House speaker, said last week that the chamber is “very close” to having majority support for the policy change and that he’s “absolutely” open to the idea.
But on the Gov. Gina Raimondo’s (D) proposal to establish a state-run cannabis system, which will be the subject of Wednesday’s hearing, he’s not so sure.
“I looked at that very briefly a year ago when the budget came in, but then hit COVID so it really kind of fell by the wayside,” Shekarchi said. “I know that some people think it should be left to the current cultivators, the current dispensaries. The governor feels maybe it should be state-run like they do in New Hampshire with the liquor stores. I think maybe we can look at a private model.”
“Do every mom-and-pop where people sell cigarettes, should they have the right to sell marijuana as well too?” he asked. “I don’t know the answers to any of those questions, but I know that we need to have hearings on it. We need to get input.”
Under Raimondo’s plan, the state would manage adult-use marijuana sales, and those products would be distributed through a contractor.
“This legalization takes the form of a state-control model, similar to how liquor sales are regulated in New Hampshire and over a dozen states,” the budget, which was released in January, states. “This regulatory approach will allow the state to control distribution, prevent youth consumption, and protect public health.”
Revenue from cannabis sales will be distributed between the state (61 percent), the contractor (29 percent) and municipalities (10 percent). The governor estimated that Rhode Island will take in $21.8 million in fiscal year 2020, $21.1 million in 2021 and $39.6 million in 2022, with revenue expected to grow by three percent each subsequent year.
Adults 21 and older would be able to purchase up to one ounce of marijuana per visit and possess up to five ounces total. Home cultivation of recreational marijuana would be prohibited.
The Office of Cannabis Regulation (OCR) would be responsible for regulating the market, as well as the state’s medical cannabis and industrial hemp programs.
Incoming House Majority Leader Christopher Blazejewski (D), meanwhile, said legalization is “certainly something we’ll take a look at,” noting that he cosponsored a bill to legalize cannabis in the past, and that “certainly the issue has come a long way in that time.”
Sen. Michael McCaffrey (D), who has been reelected to serve as Senate majority leader, called on the state to legalize marijuana earlier this month.
“The time has come to legalize adult cannabis use,” he said. “We have studied this issue extensively, and we can incorporate the practices we’ve learned from other states.”
Advocates say it’s time for the Ocean State to get on board, especially since a growing number of other states are enacting legalization.
“With 68 percent support nationwide and successful voter initiatives passed in conservative states like South Dakota and Montana, there’s no good reason why Rhode Island shouldn’t be able to pass legalization in 2021,” Jared Moffat, campaign coordinator for the Marijuana Policy Project, told Marijuana Moment.
“It’s smart policy and smart politics for leaders in the state. With the economic pain Rhode Island is experiencing, it would be legislative malfeasance to turn down tens of millions of dollars in additional revenue that could support vital programs,” he said. “We are hopeful this could finally be the year.”
The legalization victories on Election Day, particularly in New Jersey, appear to have galvanized these regional conversations about pursuing the reform.
Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont (D) said that New Jersey’s vote intensifies the need to enact the policy change in his own state. Doing so, he said, could cut down on unnecessary travel—and resulting spread of coronavirus—from his constituents traveling to nearby legal markets to buy marijuana.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), meanwhile, said recently that the time is “ripe” to legalize cannabis in his own state in the coming year after he put the issue in his budget proposals for the past two years without getting it over the finish line.
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