Key Rhode Island lawmakers say they are nearing an agreement on a marijuana legalization bill that they plan to introduce within days. But one part of the deal might jeopardize support from the governor.
Legislators have been in talks for months to reconcile competing legalization proposals that have been brought forward by the House, Senate and governor’s office. Many issues have been resolved over the course of negotiations, but the question of who should be in charge of regulating the program—an existing agency or a newly created body—has been a sticking point.
Lawmakers are now signaling that the best route to satisfy both sides would be to create a compromise approach where a state agency like the Department of Business Regulation (DBR) and a new independent cannabis commission would each play a role.
House Speaker Joseph Sherkarchi (D) said in opening remarks at the start of the 2022 session on Tuesday that lawmakers have “spent months analyzing the complex issue of marijuana legalization.”
“The House and Senate intend to soon have a draft of legislation ready, which will serve as a framework to begin a robust public hearing process,” he said. “We may not be the first state to legalize marijuana, but our goal is to do it in a way that is best for all of Rhode Islanders.”
The speaker said in a recent interview with The Boston Globe that lawmakers “have come together on a framework that will probably be introduced in mid-January.” That will likely include a proposal to create a “hybrid model” for regulating the market.
But Gov. Dan McKee (D), who proposed having DBR itself regulate the cannabis industry in legalization legislation he filed last year, hasn’t yet signed off on the hybrid idea, Rep. Scott Slater (D) told Marijuana Moment.
That said, “if we put a bill that most people are behind,” the lawmaker doesn’t expect a veto.
“I think we should have a bill soon,” Slater, who filed a bill to end cannabis prohibition last year, said.
Sen. Josh Miller (D), sponsor of one legalization proposal that was approved in the Senate last year, told Marijuana Moment that he agreed that lawmakers “should have a bill very soon with a structure very close to” what the speaker described. Miller’s legislation had proposed creating a new cannabis commission to oversee the market.
Senate President Dominick Ruggerio (D) said in his session opening remarks on Wednesday that the bill the body passed last year “included substantial measures to rectify the wrongs associated with the decades-long policies of prohibition.”
He noted that Senate leaders have been working in recent months with the House on a deal that “maintains the core principles of our proposal.”
“Because of those efforts,” he said, “I anticipate the General Assembly will legalize cannabis this legislative session.”
Shekarchi told The Globe that the forthcoming negotiated bill could still be changed even after its introduction.
“But that doesn’t mean that’s the end,” he said. “That’s the beginning of a process—a very robust, public, transparent process where I’m sure the bill will continue to change and evolve.”
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The speaker previously said that he’d be open to a compromise on regulatory structure and hinted at the possibility of a hybrid model.
Another issue related to how many marijuana business licenses also appears closer to resolution. Miller’s bill proposed as many as 150 cannabis shops, whereas McKee’s plan called for 25 and Slater wanted just 15 in his separate House bill. Miller said at an event in October that “we’re probably down to more in the 30, 40 range” as part of a deal.
Negotiators also recently reached an agreement to place a temporary moratorium on approving additional cannabis cultivator licenses. Some have protested adding cultivators beyond the existing medical marijuana licensees because they say there’s already a sufficient supply to meet demand in the adult-use market.
Ruggerio, for his part, said in September that lawmakers are “very close” to reaching a deal on a marijuana legalization bill
“We sent legislation—which we think is a very good piece of legislation—over to the House before we left in June,” the senator said, referring to the legalization bill that his chamber approved in June. “They are working on that legislation with some of the House people at this point in time.”
Another thing that remains to be seen is whether the negotiated legalization bill that’s ultimately produced will satisfy advocates and progressive lawmakers, some of whom have rallied behind an agenda for reform that emphasizes the need for bold social equity provisions.
While each of the competing bills contain components meant to address the harms of marijuana criminalization, the coalition led by Reclaim Rhode Island has said they’re insufficient. Advocates and supportive lawmakers have laid out specific items that they want to see incorporated such as setting aside half of cannabis business licenses for communities most impacted by prohibition.
“We can’t reverse the harm of the war on drugs, but we can start to repair it by passing automatic expungement and waiving all related fines, fees and court debt,” Rep. Karen Alzate (D), chair of the Rhode Island Legislative Black and Latino Caucus, said in September. “This bold legalization plan offers us the chance to turn a new leaf for the Ocean State, and it’s time we take it.”
Ruggerio said he does feel that the legalization bill that was approved in the Senate contained “very strong social justice provisions” and the expungements provision is “as close to automatic as practical.”
He also said in July that he’s not disappointed the House hasn’t advanced legalization legislation yet and that “what we really wanted to do was send it over and have them take a look at it” when his chamber passed its cannabis reform measure.
A coalition of 10 civil rights and drug policy reform advocacy groups—including the Rhode Island chapters of the ACLU and NAACP—had demanded that lawmakers move ahead with enacting marijuana reform in the state before the end of 2021. But that did not pan out.
Lawmakers have noted that neighboring states like Connecticut and Massachusetts have enacted legalization, and that adds impetus for the legislature to pursue reform in the state.
Shekarchi, meanwhile, said in July that he doesn’t intend to let regional pressure dictate the timeline for when Rhode Island enacts a policy change. Social equity, licensing fees, labor agreements and home grow provisions are among the outstanding matters that need to be addressed, the speaker said.
The House Finance Committee held a hearing on Slater’s legalization measure in June.
The governor previously told reporters that while he backs legalization it is “not like one of my highest priorities,” adding that “we’re not in a race with Connecticut or Massachusetts on this issue.”
“I think we need to get it right,” he said, pointing to ongoing discussions with the House and Senate.
The House Finance Committee discussed the governor’s proposal to end prohibition at an earlier hearing in April.
Both the governor and the leaders’ legalization plans are notably different than the proposal that former Gov. Gina Raimondo (D) had included in her budget in 2020. Prior to leaving office to join the Biden administration as commerce secretary, she called for legalization through a state-run model.
McKee gave initial insights into his perspective on the reform last January, saying that “it’s time that [legalization] happens” and that he’s “more leaning towards an entrepreneurial strategy there to let that roll that way.”
Shekarchi, meanwhile, has said he’s “absolutely” open to the idea of cannabis legalization and also leans toward privatization.
In late 2020, the Senate Finance Committee began preliminary consideration of legalization in preparation for the 2021 session, with lawmakers generally accepting the reform as an inevitability. “I certainly do think we’ll act on the issue, whether it’s more private or more state,” Sen. Ryan Pearson (D), who now serves as the panel’s chairman, said at the time.
Meanwhile, the governor in July signed a historic bill to allow safe consumption sites where people could use illicit drugs under medical supervision and receive resources to enter treatment. Harm reduction advocates say this would prevent overdose deaths and help de-stigmatize substance misuse. Rhode Island is the first state to allow the facilities.
The Senate Judiciary Committee also held a hearing last year on legislation that would end criminal penalties for possessing small amounts of drugs and replace them with a $100 fine.
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