A top Rhode Island senator says a bill to legalize marijuana in the state will be introduced this month, possibly as early as next week.
Rather than wait until later in the session for budget negotiations, Senate Majority Leader Michael McCaffrey (D) told The Public’s Radio that he wants to put the legislation in front of lawmakers sooner so they can work out regulations and decide on key policies such as how to address expungements and tax allocation from cannabis revenue.
McCaffrey said he and the chair of the Senate Health & Human Services Committee have been “meeting since November on a regular basis to talk about different aspects of the legislation, and I would suspect that the end of next week or beginning of the following week, we’ll come out with the proposed legislation so that at least the parties can start to look at it.”
Listen to McCaffrey talk about pending marijuana legislation, starting around 7:10 into the audio below:
The bill will take an “entrepreneurial” approach to the industry, he said, and that means keeping different operations within the cannabis sector, such as growers and dispensaries “independent of each other,” rather than allowing for vertical integration.
It’s also clear that the majority leader plans to propose a traditional, private model for the market, rather than create a state-run system as was floated by Gov. Gina Raimondo (D), who is expected to leave office to join the Biden administration as commerce secretary.
McCaffrey also said that the bill will include “provisions that if a community wants to opt out of [allowing marijuana businesses to operate in their area], there’s going to be a way for the communities to opt out of it.”
But other issues have yet to be settled, he said. The Senate will have to decide, for example, how to navigate expungements for prior cannabis convictions.
“We’re discussing how are we going to expunge those. How are they going to be expunged? Does someone have to take a step to expunge them?” he said.
Further, there are still open questions about the regulatory structure for the market and whether the state should create a new cannabis-focused commission to oversee the industry as is the case in neighboring Massachusetts or if the existing Department of Business Regulation should do so.
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When it comes to equitable licensing, the majority leader said “we want to make sure that we take care of people who may not be able to have the resources to get a license, so we’re going to set up a process where anyone can get a license. And we’re going to look at different criteria for those who apply.”
Finally, he said the legislature will have to decide what to do with cannabis tax revenue and how it should be distributed.
McCaffrey said that Health & Human Services Chairman Josh Miller (D) and he “know we’re putting something out there that’s going to be reviewed, and we’re going to be willing to work with all the parties of interest.”
Other top lawmakers in the state, including Senate President Dominick Ruggerio (D) and House Speaker Joseph Shekarchi (D), have said that legalization is on the table for 2021. They’ve both recently commented on their desire to pursue the reform through a private, commercial model, rather than have the state run the program.
What remains to be seen is what will be included in this year’s budget, which is due to the legislature in March. If Raimondo isn’t confirmed to the new federal position by then, it’s possible she could maintain her position on a state-run marijuana model and ask lawmakers to follow suit.
That said, she could end up adjusting her proposal in light of these statements from legislative leaders and her replacement, Lt. Gov. Daniel McKee (D), who said last month that “it’s time that [legalization] happens” and that he’s “more leaning towards an entrepreneurial strategy there to let that roll that way.”
Meanwhile, the growing momentum in Rhode Island comes as lawmakers in neighboring Connecticut are also moving toward legalizing marijuana this year. Gov. Ned Lamont (D) included a cannabis legalization plan in his budget request this week.
Photo courtesy of WeedPornDaily.