Rhode Island Normal Meeting approves authorized adult-use hashish

Sun Rise Staff Reports

The General Assembly voted in favor of legislation to legalize, regulate and tax adult recreational cannabis use in Rhode Island, sending the bill to Gov. Daniel McKee, who signed it into law.

The legislation (2022-S 2430Aaa, 2022-H 7593Aaa), sponsored by state Sen. Joshua Miller (D-Dist. 28, Cranston, Providence) and state Rep. Scott A. Slater (D-Dist. 10, Providence), decriminalizes the sale and possession of up to one ounce of cannabis for those age 21 and up, with no more than 10 ounces for personal use kept in a primary residence. It would also allow Rhode Islanders to grow a small amount of their own cannabis at home, according to a press release from the State House.

In March, Johnston Police Chief Joseph P. Razza responded to early drafts of the legislation.

“I took an oath as a police officer and Chief of Police to uphold the laws of the State of Rhode Island and the ordinances of the Town of Johnston,” Razza said, as the bill began to work its way through the General Assembly. “The potential legalization of marijuana and its impact on law enforcement and public safety as a whole will bring new challenges. I am confident that as a police department, we will meet those challenges in the best interest of public safety.”

Following testimony and months of discussion on the bill, legislative leaders and the sponsors amended the bill to provide automatic expungement of previous convictions for cannabis possession by July 1, 2024, push the start date of legalized adult recreational sales from Oct. 1 to Dec. 1 and eliminate the current fees charged to patients and caregivers for registration in the state’s medical marijuana program, among other changes.

As commercial marijuana legislation made its way through the state legislature, the Rhode Island Police Chiefs’ Association (RIPCA) issued a press release aimed at drawing “attention to several public health and safety holes in the legislation that, as drafted could result in immediate detrimental effects for Rhode Islanders if they are not responsibly and adequately addressed.”

“The regulation of commercial marijuana in Rhode Island, if it is to come to pass, must be done so with due concern and care for public health and safety,” said Rhode Island State Police Superintendent and RIPCA Executive Director Sidney M. Wordell. “We stand as Rhode Island police chiefs who have a duty to call real and obvious concerns to the attention of our policymakers in state government. Further evaluation of several aspects of the bill is needed in order to support a safe and healthy environment for all Rhode Islanders.”

Johnston Mayor Joseph M. Polisena said he has major concerns with the legislation.

“I quite frankly, am not for it,”Polisena said. “I think that they rushed it through. They totally ignored law enforcement, which is insulting to the men and the women who protect us every day. They totally ignored the police chiefs, what they had to say, and their concerns. I predict it’s going to make the roads more unsafe than they are now.”

Both RIPCA and Polisena have expressed concerns with the inability of law enforcement to determine accurately whether drivers have indulged in (now legal) marijuana, prior to getting behind the wheel.

“We’re going to see more deaths on the highway,” Polisena said. “I hope it’s not my family. I hope it’s not anyone’s family. We’ll see what happens. I don’t think it’s good for the state at all.”

The legislation establishes a 10 percent state cannabis excise tax that will be imposed in addition to the 7 percent sales tax, plus a 3 percent local tax for the municipality where the sale takes place.

“The reality is that prohibition does not stop cannabis use,” said Miller, who serves as chairman of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee. “Since Rhode Islanders can already access cannabis just across the state border or on the illicit market, we experience all the challenges without any of the safeguards or resources that our neighboring states have. With this bill, we are ending prohibition in a way that is safe, keeps revenue in Rhode Island, and is as fair and equitable as we can possibly make it. This bill has been years in the making, and is a collaborative effort to address concerns about protecting medical use, ensuring fair governance and recognizing that we cannot make this transition without taking action to make whole the communities and individuals who have been punished for decades under prohibition.”

The legislation will provide for automatic expungement by July 1, 2024, of any prior civil violation, misdemeanor or felony conviction for possession of cannabis that would be decriminalized by the bill, without requiring affected individuals to file a request, pay a fee or have a hearing. It also provides an expedited process by request for those who wish to have their record expunged earlier, according to the press release.

The bill allows a total of 33 licensed cannabis retailers statewide, including the nine approved compassion centers that could become hybrid medical/recreational retailers, distributed in six zones, according to the press release. Currently, only the three original licensed compassion centers are up and running, but the sponsors believe it’s possible that at least some of the six more that were recently approved will be open by Dec. 1, and that it is realistic to expect the hybrid licenses that will allow them to sell to recreational users will be approved by then.

The bill aims to reduce barriers to participation for those communities that have long been disproportionately affected by cannabis prohibition, according to the press release. The proposal uses licensing fees and penalties to fund technical assistance and grants to applicants and communities that have been impacted, and reserves one license in each of the six districts for a social equity licensee and another in each district for a co-op.

“Social equity has been a top concern for us throughout this whole process,” Slater said. “Sen. Miller and I represent some of the communities that have suffered disproportionate harm from prohibition for decades, resulting in generational poverty and mass incarceration. 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. I am grateful to my colleagues in the General Assembly for recognizing the importance of expungement of criminal records and equity in licensing, because they are absolutely critical to ending prohibition fairly.”

Legislative leaders recognized that the bill is a significant shift in Rhode Island law, one that came as a result of years of work by its sponsors and other legislators, advocacy organizations, law enforcement and many others, according to the press release.

“I thank all the advocates, stakeholders, staff and especially Rep. Scott Slater, who has worked tirelessly on this issue for the past decade,” said House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi (D-Dist. 23, Warwick). “The bill represents a strong foundation from which to build the safe, equitable regulation of cannabis for adult use. We are proud that this legislation prioritizes the participation of people most impacted by the past enforcement of cannabis laws both through automatic expungement and the creation of a licensing structure based on social equity.”

Said Senate Majority Leader Michael J. McCaffrey (D-Dist. 29, Warwick), called Tuesday “a truly momentous day for Rhode Island.”

“I’m deeply grateful to Sen. Miller for his years of hard work and leadership on this issue, and I’m incredibly proud to have been part of reaching this point,” McCaffrey said. “I also want to thank President Ruggerio for his support throughout this process. Ending cannabis prohibition helps us right past wrongs while creating new opportunities for all Rhode Islanders. This is the right move, at the right time, for our state.”

Under the bill, a three-member Cannabis Control Commission will be appointed by the governor with input from the Speaker of the House and approval from the Senate. That commission will be assisted by a Cannabis Advisory Board and the existing administrative Office of Cannabis Regulation within the Department of Business Regulation. That office will handle the transition to legal recreational use, including issuing hybrid licensing to existing compassion centers and cultivators, according to the press release.

The bill allows municipalities to opt out of allowing marijuana sales in their community by referendum, although those currently hosting compassion centers will not have that option. Those hosting existing licensed cultivators or testing labs will be allowed to opt out, although those facilities will be grandfathered in. The amended bill also adds a procedure for a community that opted out to revisit the issue in later years, and allows municipalities to ban cannabis use in public places by ordinance.

For participants in the state’s existing medical marijuana program, the amended bill eliminates the current fees imposed upon patients, authorized purchasers and primary caregivers for registry identification cards and plant tags, effective when adult recreational sales begins on Dec. 1. The amendment also extends to March 1, 2023, the deadline for those with out-of-state medical marijuana cards to provide government-issued identification from the same jurisdiction.

On Wednesday, Razza echoed many of the RIPCA concerns.

“The recreational use of marijuana will create public safety issues and be challenging for law enforcement and could adversely affect the safety and well-being of those we’ve sworn to serve and protect throughout our communities,” Razza said. “One of the main concerns for police is that motorists will be operating a vehicle while impaired.  Additionally, there is no legal or commercially viable test for law enforcement to detect the presence of or determine if an individual is operating while impaired. With that, we’ve already seen an increase in alcohol impaired road fatalities over the past few years and the use of recreational marijuana may compound this very real and highly concerning issue.”

(Staff Writer Rory Schuler contributed to this report.)