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A Rhode Island Senate committee on Monday approved a bill to legalize marijuana that is being championed by House leaders.
This is the first time that a bill legalizing recreational cannabis has advanced in the state.
The Judicial Committee, which previously held a hearing in April on the reform legislation, along with a competing proposal from the governor, passed the Senate bill in substitute form by 6 to 2 votes.
A third legalization measure was also recently tabled on the House side by Representative Scott Slater (D) and several cosponsors.
Oddly enough, the Senate panel action comes just days after House Speaker Joseph Shekarchi (D) signaled that legalization would not be undertaken until the summer or fall. The Senate, however, appears to have different plans and is expected to consider its bill for a floor vote as early as next week.
Several key changes were made to the Senate bill before it went to committee. This includes imposing a moratorium on approving additional marijuana growers, something the state’s existing medical cannabis producers have insisted on because they say the market is already oversaturated.
In addition, a third of the licenses of marijuana retailers would now be reserved for companies that qualify as social equity claimants.
Senate Majority Leader Michael McCaffrey (D) and Health and Human Services President Joshua Miller (D) are the main sponsors of the measure, which they introduced in March, days before Governor Dan McKee (D) does present his legalization proposal.
This legislation was also heard by the House finance committee in April. The new House bill has yet to be heard.
Overall, the Senate bill would allow adults 21 and older to buy and possess up to an ounce of cannabis. They could also grow up to six plants for their own use.
A Cannabis Control Commission would be established to regulate the market and issue business licenses. Marijuana would be subject to the state’s seven percent sales tax, in addition to a special 10 percent tax and a three percent local tax for jurisdictions that allow cannabis companies to operate in their region.
The replacement version that the committee approved ensures that there will be “no new cannabis cultivator licenses issued before July 1, 2023”. Regulators would also be responsible for reviewing the data annually to “determine the maximum number of licenses that must be issued to meet production demands.”
It was also changed from its original form to require labor peace agreements for marijuana companies, a provision that could bolster support from progressives.
Driving under the influence would be prohibited, but people cannot be considered impaired “just for having metabolites of cannabis in their system” under the bill. This represents an expansion of the original proposal, which would only have applied this protection to patients with medical cannabis.
People who have already been convicted of possession of up to two ounces of cannabis could have their records struck, while the previous version capped this threshold at one ounce. But the courts would have 90 days, instead of 60, to rule on strike applications.
In addition to deletions, the revised version bill now also includes provisions for sealing files.
Individuals or entities cannot have more than one commercial marijuana license, but the replacement version now specifies that individuals could invest in multiple operations.
Each municipality could have at least three cannabis retailers operating in their jurisdiction, but the population threshold for additional license holders has been increased, so that additional retailers could be approved for every additional 20,000 inhabitants above a baseline of 30,000. The original bill put the threshold at 10,000 above the baseline of 30,000, which would have the effect of limiting the number of retailers.
The bills passage out of the judiciary committee comes in contrast to recent comments from House leadership, with the speaker saying last week that it is “possible that we will come back sometime in the summer or fall” to tackle legalization . He said the priority is to pass the budget this month.
The governor also said this month that he “would not be surprised if it was something that was postponed perhaps to a fall session.”
Meanwhile, the Senate Majority Leader recently said that, unlike Slater and the Governor, he didn’t want the market regulated by the State Department of Business Regulation; rather, he thinks it is important “to have a separate commission in one form or another”.
As lawmakers scrambled to pass a budget, unresolved questions have arisen as to whether there is sufficient support for legalization. The Speaker of the House has been relatively silent on cannabis reform, so his recent comments on fixing the issue as early as this summer are notable.
The speaker said recently that he considered legalization “inevitable”, but he Told Politico that there are “a lot of urgent issues before us” and it is not sure that the chamber will have time to consider the measure relating to cannabis.
The governor’s and rulers’ legalization plans are particularly different from the proposal former Governor Gina Raimondo (D) included in her budget last year. Before stepping down to join the Biden administration as secretary of commerce, she called for legalization through a state-run model.
McKee gave a first glimpse of his take on reform in January, saying “it’s time for [legalization] happens “and that he’s” more inclined to an entrepreneurial strategy out there to let it go that way. “
Shekarchi, meanwhile, said he was “absolutely” open to the idea of legalizing cannabis and also leaned towards privatization.
Late last year, the Senate Finance Committee began a preliminary review of legalization ahead of the 2021 session, with lawmakers generally accepting reform as inevitable. “I certainly think we will act on the issue, whether it is more private or more state-owned,” said at the time Sen. Ryan Pearson (D), who is now chair of the panel.
Meanwhile, the Rhode Island Senate approved a bill in March that would allow safe consumption sites where people could use illicit drugs under medical supervision and be given resources for treatment. Harm reduction advocates say it would prevent overdose deaths and help de-stigmatize substance abuse.
The Senate Judiciary Committee also held a hearing in March on legislation that would end criminal penalties for possession of small amounts of drugs and replace them with a fine of $ 100.
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Photo courtesy of Philippe Steffan.