Top Rhode Island Senator Says Lawmakers Are Discussing A Marijuana Legalization Compromise This Summer
The top leader of the Rhode Island Senate says negotiations on a compromise bill to legalize marijuana will continue this summer, and he anticipates action following Labor Day in September.
Senate President Dominick Ruggerio (D) told WPRI-TV on Friday 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 a cannabis reform measure last month.
“The governor has one [legalization bill], the House has one, and we always knew it was something that we were not going to do during this session,” he said, referring to the legislative period before lawmakers finished the annual budget and left for the summer. “But hopefully we can sit down during the summer and work something out.”
The Senate was able to get its legalization bill passed on the floor before the budget, but House leadership has insisted that more time is needed to reconcile the competing measures.
House Speaker Joseph Shekarchi (D) said last week that while he feels reform is “inevitable” in Rhode Island and bound to happen “soon,” he plans to continue negotiations to merge competing reform proposals over the summer with the goal of passing a bill in the fall.
Ruggerio, the Senate leader, said that “if and when we come back in the fall—which I know we probably will because we have to [confirm judicial nomination]—I don’t know what the House is going to do.”
“But hopefully if we work something out,” he said, “they might be amenable to coming back and addressing that particular issue.”
Watch Ruggerio’s marijuana comments, starting around 1:00 into the video below:
But he tempered expectations about the timing of reform advancing, saying it would happen “well after Labor Day” in September.
“We’ve had discussions. There’s no fixed date or anything like that,” he said. “Obviously we want to see what kind of money comes in from the federal government—which has nothing to do with this particular issue—but that’s why we would come back and see what money we would have to appropriate, and I think that would be a good time to address the cannabis issue.”
A key disagreement between the House, Senate and governor’s office concerns who should have regulatory authority over marijuana. Ruggerio was pressed on the issue during this most recent interview and said members of his chamber agree that “a separate commission is the way to go with respect to this.”
The House and Gov. Dan McKee (D), on the other hand, want the program to be managed by the state Department of Business Regulation (DBR). Ruggerio noted that “it was difficult to negotiate on a bill when the House bill really didn’t come until late in the session.”
Asked whether he felt the legislature and governor could come to an agreement despite the differences, Senate Majority Leader Mike McCaffrey (D), who appeared alongside Ruggerio in the new WPRI interview on Friday, said “that’s what our goal is.”
“Obviously there’s some issues that different people have relative to different categories of licenses and things like that and how we’re rolling them out,” he said. “Are we going to limit them? what type of equity are you going to give to the different people in different communities so that they can get into the business? And social equity and things of that nature.”
McCaffrey was also asked about provisions related to allowing local municipalities to opt out of allowing marijuana businesses to operate in their area. He said “once the legislation is passed and whatever form is passed in, the communities have an opportunity to opt out.”
“They have an opportunity to opt out if the community doesn’t want to participate in it,” he said. “That’s their decision—however, they don’t get the funds that would come from the sales in that community.”
The majority leader also 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 last week that he doesn’t intend to let regional pressure dictate the timeline for when Rhode Island enacts a policy change. But it is the case that legalization has now gone in effect in in surrounding states like Connecticut and Massachusetts.
“I’m not in any hurry to legalize marijuana for the sake of legalizing it. I want to do it right,” he said. “It doesn’t matter to me if we’re the last state in the union to legalize it or we never legalize it, but I need to do it right.”
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“I need to make sure that we do this right for the taxpayers of Rhode Island and for the medical community, the business community,” the speaker continued. “This needs to be done properly, and I’m not going to be rushed into it because other states are moving fast. I want to learn from other states, look at the mistakes they’ve made, look at what’s worked in other states, collaborate with them and work to put out a good product.”
Social equity, licensing fees, labor agreements and home grow provisions are among the outstanding matters that need to be addressed, Shekarchi said in a separate interview with WPRI.
“If we can reach a consensus with the Senate and the governor’s office on marijuana, we’d certainly come back in the fall to address that issue,” he said.
“I don’t see it happening before Labor Day,” he added, noting that the lack of air conditioning in the State House would likely prevent the legislative session from resuming in the middle of the summer and so it’s more likely it would happen in “late September or early October.”
All of these latest comments come weeks after the state Senate approved a legalization bill from McCaffrey and Health & Human Services Chairman Joshua Miller (D), which was introduced in March. The governor also came out with his own legalization proposal shortly thereafter.
A third Rhode Island legalization measure was also recently filed on the House side by Rep. Scott Slater (D) and several cosponsors. The House Finance Committee held a hearing on the measure last month.
The governor, for his part, 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 last week 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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Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.