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Rhode Island Lawmakers to Vote on Cannabis Legalization

Rhode Island lawmakers are scheduled to vote on policy reform for cannabis this week. The state Senate and House of Representatives plan to examine identical bills that legalize adult recreational marijuana. 

According to local media reports, the Senate Judiciary Committee is expected to vote on Senate Bill 2430 that Joshua Miller sponsored on Wednesday afternoon. The House Finance Committee will also vote later that day on House Bill 7593, which Scott A. Slater, a Democratic Representative, sponsored. These companion bills will legalize adult possession of one ounce or more of cannabis and provide a framework to regulate the production and sale commercially.

“This historic shift in public policy will create a vibrant new marketplace in our state and end the failed practice of prohibition, which has caused such harm to so many in our communities,” Miller said when the legislation was unveiled earlier this year. “To help address those past wrongs, and to ensure all Rhode Islanders have the opportunity to share the economic benefits associated with legalizations, equity is a central focus of this legislation.”

“The time for Rhode Island to move forward with cannabis legalization is now,” Miller, a longtime supporter of cannabis legalization, said in a statement when the legislation was unveiled earlier this year. “This historic shift in public policy will create a vibrant new marketplace in our state and end the failed practice of prohibition, which has caused such harm to so many in our communities.”

Public possession is allowed up to an ounce. Adults can also possess up 10 ounces of marijuana in their private areas. It also allows adults to have up to three mature or immature cannabis plants at their home.

It authorizes 33 retail cannabis shops, nine of which would be hybrid dispensaries. They could carry medical or recreational marijuana. The total tax on cannabis would amount to 20%. This includes a 10% excise tax and a 7% sales tax. A tax of 3% would also be collected by local governments that license cannabis-related businesses. Local jurisdictions could opt out of allowing retail cannabis businesses by placing a ballot question on the ballot for this year’s general election, but communities that vote not to allow dispensaries will not be eligible for revenue generated by cannabis taxes.

The bills would create a three-member cannabis control commission to oversee Rhode Island’s regulated cannabis industry. Once the new agency is formed, it would also take on oversight of the state’s medical canabis industry. It also creates the Rhode Island Department of Business Regulation’s cannabis regulatory office as well as a board of cannabis advisors.

Governor’s Office Objects to Bill’s Details

Although legalizing cannabis for adult use is supported by Democratic Governor Daniel McKee, his administration has expressed “significant constitutional concerns” about how the three members of the cannabis control commission would be appointed and, if necessary, removed from the panel. The most recent version of the legislation, which has the support of leadership in both the House and Senate, would give lawmakers a say in the commission’s appointments. But Claire Richards, the governor’s executive counsel, wrote in a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee that such appointments are usually made by the governor.

“Such pervasive control by the legislature impermissibly enlarges its constitutional role at the expense of the executive,” Richards wrote in the letter quoted by the Providence Journal.

Under the Rhode Island Constitution, Richards noted, only the governor has the authority to appoint “all members of any commission” that exercise executive functions such as approving rules for cannabis retailers, issuing licenses to dispensaries and inspecting retail businesses.

However, the latest version of legislation permits the governor to appoint commission members only from a short list of candidates that have been recommended by the Senate President as well as the House of Representatives. Also, only the Senate can approve the Governor’s removal from the Commission.

After Richards made the administration’s concerns known, spokesmen for the House and Senate disputed the contention that the legislation is unconstitutional.

“This bill, and specifically the appointment process, is consistent with Rhode Island’s separation-of-powers principles and the law flowing from the Rhode Island Supreme Court,” the spokesmen wrote in a joint statement.

They added that the appointment process “is similar to the process used in the I-195 Redevelopment District Commission and the Judicial Nominating Commission.”

Incorporating social equity into legislation

Miller noted when the bill was introduced in March that “equity is a central focus of this legislation.” The measure includes provisions to use licensing fees and penalties to fund grants and technical assistance to applicants from underserved communities and those harmed by the War on Drugs. One license is reserved in six retail districts by the legislation for applicants with social equity, while another one in each district will be available for co-op retail dispensaries.

“It is the right public policy for Rhode Island to make cannabis possession and sales legal. We have been studying legalization proposals here for many years, and we now can look to our neighboring states’ experiences and see that taxing and regulating cannabis makes sense,” Slater said in March. 

“I’m especially proud that we have made a very deliberate effort to address social equity through this bill,” he added. “We have to recognize the harm that prohibition has done to communities, particularly minorities and poor, urban neighborhoods and ensure that those communities get the support they need to benefit from legalization.”