Legalization advocates have their sights set on Rhode Island as one of a handful of states likely to be the first to end prohibition by an act of the legislature as opposed to via a voter initiative on the ballot. The Ocean State doesn’t have the citizen initiative process but in recent years the General Assembly there has legalized medical marijuana and decriminalized possession of the drug with strong bipartisan votes.
Now, a key legislative leader has added fuel to the debate on full legalization, saying that the legislature will look “comprehensively” at the issue.
In an interview with RIFuture.org, House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello said he has “no opinion on marijuana, other than I know it’s an issue that’ll come up and we’ll consider it.”
While saying that legalization is “not an item on my agenda right now,” Mattiello wants to see how the issue “vets itself in committee” and “where the citizenry of the state want to be on that issue.”
A poll last year found that 53 percent of Rhode Islanders support legalizing and taxing marijuana.
“I’m not necessarily opposed. I’m not in favor,” Mattiello said. “I’m sure it’ll have some benefits, I’m sure it’ll have some costs.”
Legislators should “do a full analysis on it and see how the citizens feel about it and then we’ll certainly consider it,” the speaker said.
If Mattiello brought legalization to a vote on the House floor, it would likely pass. While a legalization bill has not yet been introduced for the 2015 legislative session, a proposal last year garnered 29 cosponsors out of 75 total House members, including support from the Republican minority leader. A companion bill had 13 cosponsors in the state’s 38-member Senate. Those bills didn’t get brought to a vote in committee or on the floor.
Earlier this month, newly inaugurated governor Gina Raimondo said she thinks legalization is coming to Rhode Island sooner or later. Ending prohibition “is absolutely something that we should evaluate,” she said, “because if we think it’s inevitable, and if there’s a way to do it that is properly regulated so people don’t get hurt, it’s something that we should look at.”
Jared Moffat, director of the pro-legalization group Regulate Rhode Island, told Marijuana.com in an interview that the comments from Mattiello and Raimondo “indicate that they are hearing a clear message from their constituents: it’s time to end marijuana prohibition this year.”
“With the state facing difficult economic challenges, our leaders see an opportunity to generate revenue and create middle class jobs by regulating and taxing marijuana,” Moffat said. “They are realizing that they need to take a serious look at the legislation being proposed.”
In light of the successful implementation of legalization in Colorado and Washington, and with Alaska, Oregon and the District of Columbia voting to end prohibition last year, national momentum is picking up. It is expected that a number of states — most likely California, Maine, Massachusetts, and Nevada but also perhaps others — will have legalization initiatives on the ballot in 2016.
While some legislators in Rhode Island want to wait to see how further implementation goes before acting, legalization advocates say that if the state is going to legalize at some point, the smart play is to move ahead as soon as possible.
“States that move first on regulating marijuana will see the most economic benefits in everything from tax revenue to job creation,” said Moffat, of Regulate Rhode Island. “Several other New England states, including Massachusetts, are poised to pass measures to regulate marijuana in the next couple of years, so it is crucial that Rhode Island enacts The Marijuana Regulation, Control, and Taxation Act this year to get ahead of the curve.”