When Will Rhode Island Legalize Marijuana?


Officials in Rhode Island seem to agree: The state is likely to legalize marijuana. But, so far, they haven’t reached a consensus on when that will happen.

Earlier this month, State Sen. Josh Miller introduced a bill that would end prohibition and regulate and tax the cannabis industry. Among the 15 co-sponsors joining him are powerful names like Senate Majority Leader Dominick Ruggerio and Judiciary Committee Chairman Michael McCaffrey.

On the House side, Rep. Scott Slater is expected to introduce companion legislation this week with a sizable number of co-sponsors, including with Republican Minority Leader Brian Newberry.

While House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello hasn’t yet committed to bring the issue to a vote, he seems increasingly comfortable with the idea that the Ocean State could end marijuana prohibition, especially if neighboring Massachusetts approves a legalization measure that’s expected to appear on November’s ballot.

“If it doesn’t come to vote this year, we’ll see what happens on the ballot in Massachusetts and we could be pretty nimble thereafter,” he said in an interview on Rhode Island Public Radio. “If we don’t pass it this year and Massachusetts does, legislatively if we chose to we still have the option of dealing with it early in the next legislative session.”

But legalization advocates like Jared Moffat of Regulate Rhode Island think it would be a mistake for the state to miss its chance to be the first in New England to legalize.

“Waiting for Massachusetts to move first would be a mistake, because we would miss our opportunity to get a head start advantage,” Moffat told Marijuana.com in an interview. “Instead of scrambling to put something together after Massachusetts, why not use the several remaining months in the current legislative session to have a thoughtful discussion and pass the bill this year?”

In the meantime, Vermont could also jump ahead and become the first in the region to end cannabis prohibition. Gov. Peter Shumlin supports a legalization bill that’s currently working its way through the Green Mountain State’s legislature.

Lawmakers in Rhode Island have decriminalized marijuana possession and legalized medical cannabis with strong vote margins in recent years, and advocates say there’s no reason the legislature should shy away from going even further right now, especially when it seems likely they’ll get there eventually.

“Our legislation would put the illegal marijuana dealers out of business while generating tens of millions of dollars in tax revenue that we can invest in our communities,” Miller said while introducing his bill.

But Gov. Gina Raimondo, who has said she’ll keep an open mind about legalization, recently proposed taxing patients’ homegrown medical cannabis plants as a way to raise revenue. Advocates have pushed back strongly, saying that if the state wants to generate money from marijuana it should just end prohibition across the board and tax recreational use instead of burdening patients. They are set to hold a rally at the State House opposing plant tax on Tuesday afternoon.

Mattiello, who revealed in the Rhode Island Public Radio interview that he’s considering sending a legislative delegation to Colorado to learn about the state’s implementation of legalization, says he’s “committed to be open-minded and to listen to both sides.”

It is likely that the bills from Miller and Slater will get committee hearings in the coming weeks, but it isn’t yet known if leadership will give the green light for votes to be held this year or if the state will wait until after Massachusetts and Vermont move first.

About Author

Tom Angell covers policy and politics for Marijuana.com. Separately, he serves as chairman of the nonprofit organization Marijuana Majority, which works to ensure that elected officials and the media treat legalization as a serious, mainstream issue. Marijuana Majority led the effort to get the U.S. Conference of Mayors to pass a resolution telling the federal government to respect state marijuana laws, and orchestrated the first-ever endorsement for marijuana legalization by a U.S. Supreme Court justice (John Paul Stevens). Previously, Tom worked for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition and Students for Sensible Drug Policy. (All organizations are listed for identification purposes only.)

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