A top Rhode Island lawmaker on Thursday said that a bill to legalize marijuana in the Ocean State is nearly finalized, with just one major provision left to resolve following months of negotiations—and that he expects the issue to be resolved early in the new year.
House Speaker Joe Shekarchi (D) told WPRI-TV that while legislators are “still not there” on a final product, he’s “happy to report that we’ve worked down to almost one issue that’s left, but it’s not there yet.” That issue relates to who should regulate the cannabis market—a new independent commission or the state Department of Business Regulation (DBR).
The speaker, who previously said that he’d be open to a compromise on the question of who should regulate the market, floated the idea that there could ultimately be “some combination thereof or some hybrid version of it.”
Top lawmakers have been in talks for months to reconcile competing legalization proposals that have been brought forward by the House, Senate and governor’s office—and at one point planned to convene a fall special session to enact the resulting deal, but that hasn’t happened.
“I have another meeting next week. I hope to wrap it up,” Shekarchi said in the new interview, adding that “I expect you’ll see that [final bill] in the first quarter of 2022.”
Watch Shekarchi talk about the status of negotiations over a marijuana legalization bill in the video below:
“We’re studying other states. But the marijuana bill in general is a very complicated piece of legislation,” he said. “People just say ‘legalize it.’ It touches very different areas of the law. It touches taxation. We have to make sure that we’re doing it right.”
He also said that lawmakers are “talking about some kind of a expungement process that would be built into the bill as well—so it’s a very comprehensive bill. It’s a very thick bill. And it’s in a lot of different areas of law, and I want to make sure we do it right.”
“I’ve always said, I don’t necessarily want to be the first, I want to be the best.”
Sen. Josh Miller (D), sponsor of one legalization proposal that was approved in the Senate earlier this year, similarly said in October that regulatory responsibility remained to be a sticking point in negotiations.
It appears that another outstanding issue related to how many marijuana business licenses should be approved has been resolved, given the speaker’s new comments. Miller’s bill proposed as many as 150 cannabis shops, whereas Gov. Dan McKee’s (D) plan called for 25 and Rep. Scott Slater (D) wanted just 15 in his separate House bill.
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.
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But regulatory authority still needs to be hashed out.
Some like Miller want to set up an independent cannabis commission, whereas others feel the recreational market should be overseen by the DBR, which currently regulates Rhode Island’s medical marijuana program.
Senate President Dominick Ruggerio (D), 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.”
What 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 says 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, for his part, 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.”
Reclaim Rhode Island isn’t the only group pushing lawmakers to expeditiously work to pass legalization. It’s part of a coalition of 10 civil rights and drug policy reform advocacy groups—including the Rhode Island chapters of the ACLU and NAACP—that recently demanded that lawmakers move ahead with enacting marijuana reform in the state before the end of 2021.
Shekarchi said in July that while there’s not yet a consensus among legislators and the governor on a deal to legalize marijuana, it’s still a “workable” issue and would be prioritized if lawmakers convened a special session this fall.
Slater recently told Marijuana Moment that “things are still where they were” prior to the end of session—but lawmakers are “trying to figure out a reconciliation between my bill, the Senate’s and the governor’s.”
Meetings over the summer had been “mostly informal,” the representative said. “I think we can get there before next year. It will not be perfect, and I am sure a work in progress.”
Ruggerio 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.
Shekarchi, for his part, previously said that he feels reform is “inevitable.”
Senate Majority Leader Mike McCaffrey (D) was also recently asked about provisions related to allowing local municipalities to opt out of allowing marijuana businesses to operate in their area. He said “once the legislation is passed and whatever form is passed in, the communities have an opportunity to opt out.”
“They have an opportunity to opt out if the community doesn’t want to participate in it,” he said. “That’s their decision—however, they don’t get the funds that would come from the sales in that community.”
The majority leader also 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 last year. 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 in 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.
Late last year, 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 in March on legislation that would end criminal penalties for possessing small amounts of drugs and replace them with a $100 fine.
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