Rhode Island’s House speaker says lawmakers are “very close” to introducing a bicameral negotiated marijuana legalization bill, and a top Senate leader saying he’s optimistic that it will pass “overwhelmingly” in both chambers when it comes up for a vote early in 2022.
Legislators have been in talks for months to reconcile competing legalization proposals that have been brought forward by the House, Senate and governor’s office. Negotiations have been productive, and draft legislation will be introduced within weeks, “in the month of January,” House Speaker Joseph Sherkarchi (D) told Providence Business News.
The bill’s filing “will begin a robust public hearing and vetting process,” he said. But it appears the plan is to get those legislative proceedings done quickly, as Senate Majority Leader Michael McCaffrey (D) said the goal is to get the measure approved in the House and Senate by February.
“Once it goes through the hearing process, I think that it will pass in both chambers overwhelmingly,” he said.
While lawmakers have made progress in reaching agreements on various provisions that kept legalization from being enacted in 2021, the main sticking point concerns who should be in charge of regulating the cannabis program.
“The Senate wants to have a separate independent commission to regulate the cannabis industry,” McCaffery said, while the House wants the state Department of Business Regulation (DBR) to hold that responsibility.
“We have been working with the House on some language that hopefully everyone can live with,” he said.
Shekarchi, for his part, said earlier this month that he’d be open to a compromise on the matter and floated the idea that there could ultimately be “some combination thereof or some hybrid version of it.”
Sen. Josh Miller (D), sponsor of one legalization proposal that was approved in the Senate earlier this year, similarly said in October that regulatory responsibility remained to be a sticking point in negotiations.
It appears that another outstanding issue related to how many marijuana business licenses should be approved has been resolved, given the speaker’s recent comments. Miller’s bill proposed as many as 150 cannabis shops, whereas Gov. Dan McKee’s (D) plan called for 25 and Rep. Scott Slater (D) wanted just 15 in his separate House bill.
Negotiators also recently reached an agreement to place a temporary moratorium on approving additional cannabis cultivator licenses. Some have protested adding cultivators beyond the existing medical marijuana licensees because they say there’s already a sufficient supply to meet demand in the adult-use market.
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Senate President Dominick Ruggerio (D), for his part, said in September that lawmakers are “very close” to reaching a deal on a marijuana legalization bill
“We sent legislation—which we think is a very good piece of legislation—over to the House before we left in June,” the senator said, referring to the legalization bill that his chamber approved in June. “They are working on that legislation with some of the House people at this point in time.”
What remains to be seen is whether the negotiated legalization bill that’s ultimately produced will satisfy advocates and progressive lawmakers, some of whom have rallied behind an agenda for reform that emphasizes the need for bold social equity provisions.
While each of the competing bills contain components meant to address the harms of marijuana criminalization, the coalition led by Reclaim Rhode Island says they’re insufficient. Advocates and supportive lawmakers have laid out specific items that they want to see incorporated such as setting aside half of cannabis business licenses for communities most impacted by prohibition.
“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 in September. “This bold legalization plan offers us the chance to turn a new leaf for the Ocean State, and it’s time we take it.”
Ruggerio said he does feel that the legalization bill that was approved in the Senate contained “very strong social justice provisions” and the expungements provision is “as close to automatic as practical.”
He also 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.
A coalition of 10 civil rights and drug policy reform advocacy groups—including the Rhode Island chapters of the ACLU and NAACP—recently demanded that lawmakers move ahead with enacting marijuana reform in the state before the end of 2021.
Lawmakers have 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 previously 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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