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Rhode Island’s Likely Next Governor Backs Private Legal Marijuana Model Over State-Run Market

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It appears increasingly likely that Rhode Island will pursue a standard system of marijuana legalization with licensed private businesses instead of a unique state-run model, with the likely next governor announcing on Thursday for the first time that he supports ending prohibition and that he favors an “entrepreneurial strategy.”

That’s a departure from current Gov. Gina Raimondo (D), who has pushed for the state itself to run a legal cannabis market.

Lt. Gov. Daniel McKee (D), who as recently as 2019 said he did not favor legalization, will replace Raimondo if she’s confirmed as President-elect Joe Biden’s commerce secretary. Asked about legalization at a news conference on Thursday, McKee said, “I think it’s time that that happens.”

“It’s got to be regulated, but I think it’s time that that happens,” he said.

When pressed on whether he backs Raimondo’s state-run approach for cannabis, McKee replied that he’s “more leaning towards an entrepreneurial strategy there to let that roll that way.”

Watch McKee discuss his position on marijuana legalization below: 

Raimondo included the state-run marijuana proposal in a budget plan last year, but lawmakers did not enact it.

Senate President Dominick Ruggerio (D) has also signaled that he’d prefer a traditional commercial market, saying, “I don’t think the state should be in that type of business” and that Rhode Island should have a private industry “very similar to Massachusetts.”

Ruggerio also said he’s put Majority Leader Michael McCaffrey (D) and Senate Committee on Health and Human Services Chair Josh Miller (D) in charge of developing legislative language for the reform this year. Miller has led the push to legalize in prior sessions, and McCaffrey has said he supports a traditional commercial market.


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House Speaker Joseph Shekarchi (D), meanwhile, has said he’s “absolutely” open to the idea of cannabis legalization but also leans toward privatization.

“The governor feels maybe it should be state-run, like they do in New Hampshire with the liquor stores,” he said. “I think maybe we can look at a private model.”

All of this adds up to a growing likeliness that Rhode Island will go the path of all currently legal states as lawmakers pursue a policy change this session. But 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 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. If McKee is in the governor’s office by the time budget season rolls around, he could include another form of legalization in his fiscal plan or he could simply leave it up to legislators to come up with their own cannabis bill to send to his desk.

McKee has clearly evolved his position on legalizing marijuana in recent months as he prepares to potentially take the top state job and then run for reelection in 2022.

“The verdict is still out in terms of how it impacts young people in particular, and I think that there needs to be a whole lot more analysis,” he said in 2019. “I don’t think that we need to be the next one to follow. I think there’s time to kind of take a look and see what’s going on in terms of the number of issues that that I think other states are going to have on that one.”

Meanwhile, the growing momentum in Rhode Island comes as lawmakers in neighboring Connecticut are also moving toward legalizing marijuana this year.

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Photo courtesy of WeedPornDaily.

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