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Rhode Island Lawmakers Vote To Legalize Adult-Use Cannabis

Following an update of the measure by legislators on Tuesday night, both the Rhode Island Senate (and House of Representatives) voted Wednesday to approve the legalization of cannabis for adult use.

The Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously approved the bill on Wednesday. However, 12-2 votes were cast for the measure by the House Finance Committee. The bill’s success in committee sets up a vote on the legislation by the full Senate and House, both of which have been scheduled for early next week.

Senate Senator Josh Miller was the sponsor of this legislation and celebrated its completion shortly before the release on Tuesday night.

“For me this has been about a 10-year effort, so it’s nice to wrap it up,” Miller said in a statement quoted by local media.

Both identical bills, Senate Bill 2530 from Miller and House Bill 7593, sponsored by Scott A. Slater would allow anyone 21 years old or over to possess up one ounce publically. Adults can also possess 10 ounces or more of cannabis at their home and grow three to four mature and immature cannabis plants.

This bill creates the regulatory framework necessary for legal cannabis commerce. Sales of recreational marijuana are expected to start on December 1. In an earlier version, the bill had October 1 as the date of regulation for adult-use cannabis.

The amended version of the bill also strengthens the measure’s social equity provisions. Courts have until July 1, 2024, to extinguish any previous civil or criminal convictions for cannabis-related low-level convictions. The bill’s previous version required that those who had been convicted to petition the courts to clear their records.

“Social equity has been a top concern for us throughout this whole process,” Slater said. “The starting line isn’t the same for people in poor, urban and minority communities, and they deserve support to ensure they get the full benefit of participating in legalization.”

Restorative justice advocates argued that the requirement for anyone with a criminal record in cannabis possession to file a petition to the court for an expungement would make the process less available to those from communities where there is little or no access to the courts. Cherie Cruz of Formerly Incarcerated Union of Rhode Island praised the changes in a statement.

“The inclusion of state-initiated expungement in any framework of cannabis legalization is one of the most important concrete steps to work towards social justice, equity and repairing the harm of the failed War on Drugs to so many impacted Rhode Islanders,” said Cruz.

Also, the new bill includes provisions for patients who use medicinal cannabis. These include the elimination of charges for medical weed cards as well as plant identification tags. Plant tags would be necessary for adults who cultivate recreational marijuana.

“The amended bill is a collaborative effort to address concerns about protecting medical use, ensuring fair governance and recognizing that we can’t make this transition without taking action to make whole the communities and individuals who have been punished for decades under prohibition,” Miller said.

Rhode Island Amended Bill Addresses Governor’s Concerns

New legislation addresses the concerns of Rhode Island Governor Daniel McKee’s administration. Officials argue that the bill gives legislators powers to appoint regulatory committees of three members that are legal reserved for him. Common Cause Rhode Island is a non-profit group that advocates for good governance and agreed with the assertions of the Constitutional Separation of Powers.

This amended bill eliminates Senate power to remove members from commissions and gives the Senate President authority to make recommendations to panel appointments. John Marion, Common Cause’s executive director, stated that the bill still violates the separation of power doctrine.

“The Cannabis Control Commission is still constitutionally defective because the governor is asked to pick one of the three commissioners from a list given to him by the Speaker of the House,” Marion said. “The Senate asserted that the original bill passed constitutional muster, but the fact that they changed several provisions in response to previous criticism is an admission that their argument didn’t rest on firm ground.”

In a statement released by McKee’s office Tuesday night, the governor thanked lawmakers for addressing his concerns about the commission.

“While this bill is different than the governor’s original proposal – it does accomplish his priorities of making sure legalization is equitable, controlled, and safe,” spokesperson Matt Sheaff said in an email. “We look forward to reviewing the final bill that comes out of the General Assembly and signing legalization of adult-use cannabis into law.”

Others parts of the bill were unchanged. The total tax on cannabis would amount to 20%. This includes a 10% excise and sales tax as well as a 7% tax. A 3% tax would also be levied at local government for hosting cannabis-licensed businesses. The November general election ballot could allow local jurisdictions to opt out from allowing cannabis retail businesses. However, communities who vote against dispensaries won’t be eligible for any revenue generated by cannabis taxes. The option to host retailers would be denied for cities and towns with medical marijuana dispensaries.

Each chamber of the Senate and House has scheduled Tuesday as a date for the vote. Following the approval of the bill in committee, Governor John McCain stated that he plans to sign off on the legislation.

“I’ll be willing to sign the piece of legislation if it gets to my desk the way I understand it’s going to be delivered,” McKee said on Wednesday.