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Rhode Island Will ‘Absolutely’ Consider Legalizing Marijuana In 2021, New House Speaker Says



Marijuana legalization has a solid chance of advancing in Rhode Island in 2021, two top House lawmakers said in a new interview.

Incoming House Speaker Joseph Shekarchi (D) said on WPRI-TV’s Newsmakers program on Friday that the chamber is “very close” to having majority support for the policy change and that he’s “absolutely” open to the idea.

Rep. Christopher Blazejewski (D), who party colleagues recently voted to install as House majority leader in the next session, said the policy 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.”

“I remember many years ago we would have trouble finding people cosponsoring it. Now we have the Senate leader and a Senate president seemingly fully endorsing it, so it’s an issue that’s really come a long way,” he said, referring to recent comments from leaders of the state’s other legislative chamber. “I think we have much more experience around that, with other states to draw upon, but it’s something we’re going to take a look at, especially with all of the many budgetary issues that we’re facing.”

Watch the lawmakers discuss cannabis policy in 2021 below: 

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.”

“Further, our policy of prohibition no longer makes sense with Massachusetts moving towards a robust legalization system,” McCaffrey said. “We can create jobs, capture lost tax revenue and fund important social programs going forward.”

Shekarchi, who earlier this month said that legalizing marijuana is “on the table” as way to raise revenue for Rhode Island, noted during the new TV interview that voters in five states approved ballot measures to legalize cannabis in some form and that “we’re heading in that direction as a country.”

“So, yes, I’m open to it. I want to listen to all sides what they have to say. I don’t have any hard and fast position on legalization of marijuana,” he said. “And then, even if we decided to legalize it, how do we legalize it and who gets to sell it, who gets to manufacture it, who gets to distribute it?”

Senate President Dominick Ruggerio (D), who was also reelected to maintain his leadership role next year, recently indicated that lawmakers may be ready to end cannabis prohibition for adults in 2021.

Ruggerio, who has repeatedly expressed opposition to the reform in the past, said this month that the body would “take a good look” at the issue.

“I’ve had some concerns in the past about the social costs that exist with that,” the Senate president said. “We’re in a tough situation as far as our revenue is concerned. I don’t want to look at it just as a revenue source, so I’m interested in seeing what we can come up with, similar to what they’ve done with the medical marijuana.”

Gov. Gina Raimondo (D) has included marijuana legalization language in her budget proposals for the past two years, but the legislature has so far refused to advance the issue beyond moves to expand the state’s existing medical cannabis system.

The governor floated the idea in her last budget of implementing marijuana legalization through a state-run model.

“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 of that proposal. “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.”

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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Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.

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