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Top Rhode Island Senator Backs Private Marijuana Sales Model As Another Lawmaker Puts 95 Percent Odds On Legalization

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Rhode Island state Sen. Dominick J. Ruggerio (D) was formally re-elected as Senate president this week, and in opening remarks before assembled lawmakers he reiterated his plan to have two Democratic colleagues write a bill to legalize marijuana in the state.

“I have asked Majority Leader Michael McCaffrey (D) and Chairman Josh Miller (D) to work together to develop a framework to legalize and regulate recreational marijuana,” Ruggerio, who was first elected Senate president in 2017, said in his speech on Tuesday, as lawmakers kicked off the state’s 2021 legislative session.

Lawmakers are widely expected to seriously consider a cannabis legalization bill this year.

Rep. Karen Alzate (D) told ABC 6 on Tuesday she believes there’s a “good 95 percent chance” the legislature will adopt the change.

Details of the plan, however, are still being hammered out.

Watch Ruggerio mention marijuana legalization in his speech, around 32:30 into the video below:

One key disagreement is over who would control the new industry. Gov. Gina Raimondo’s (D) most recent legalization plan, introduced in a budget plan a year ago, would create a first-of-its-kind state-run cannabis industry, much like how some states have a monopoly on liquor sales. Raimondo said last month the state model “is the most controlled way to do it” and “the way to maximize state revenue.”

Every other U.S. state to legalize retail marijuana, meanwhile, has licensed private companies to grow and sell the plant.

The governor, who was reported on Thursday to have been selected by President-elect Joe Biden to serve as commerce secretary, was expected to include cannabis legalization in another budget request due in March. It’s not yet known how long she will serve in her current role as her confirmation by the U.S. Senate is pending.

Meanwhile, Lt. Gov. Daniel McKee (D), who will become governor if Raimondo vacates the office, said in 2019 that he does not support legalizing marijuana.

“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 at the time. “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.”

When it comes to medical cannabis, he said that it has “been pretty well proven that when people are in pain or they have certain conditions that that does help, so I don’t oppose that.”

Despite not being on board with full legalization, McKee said he did back decriminalization.

“I don’t think that we should be incarcerating people in a way that we have in the past,” he said. “I think I don’t think we’re doing that as much now. But I think there’s two issues there. There’s a health issue and I think there’s this legal issue where I think that some people would say, ‘Well, we just want to legalize it so that we don’t incarcerate as many people.’ I think that we need to deal with each one of those separately.”

Watch McKee discuss marijuana, around 22:35 into the video below:

In any case, speaking to a reporter for WPRI 12 after his re-election as Senate president this week, Ruggerio indicated he prefers the more standard, private model.

“I don’t think the state should be in that type of business,” Ruggerio said. “I think that should be a private concern… very similar to Massachusetts.”

“Obviously there’s concern about the control of it,” he added, according to WJAR 10. “We’ll try to take some of the best practices of all the states and incorporate it into what they’re looking to do.”

Ruggerio first announced last month his plan to put McCaffrey and Miller, who chairs the Senate Committee on Health and Human Services and has led the push to enact legalization in past sessions, in charge of coming up with legislative language for this year’s bill.

McCaffrey at the time told reporters he also favors an industry controlled by private companies.

On the House side, Rep. Joseph Shekarchi (D), who was formally elected as the new speaker of the House this week, has said he’s “absolutely” open to the idea of cannabis legalization.

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

Lawmakers returned to session outside of the State House this week, convening at alternative sites believed to have better ventilation than the government building, a measure meant to limit the transmission of COVID-19.

Meanwhile, the governor and lawmakers in neighboring Connecticut are also moving toward legalizing marijuana this year.

This story was updated to include information about McKee’s opposition to legalizing marijuana.

Connecticut Governor Renews Pledge To Pursue Marijuana Legalization In 2021 State Of The State Speech

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Ben Adlin is a Seattle-based writer and editor. He has covered cannabis as a journalist since 2011, most recently as a senior news editor for Leafly.

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