Rhode Island lawmakers approach marijuana legalization deal, but governor fails to sell key provision

Leading Rhode Island lawmakers have said they are close to reaching agreement on a marijuana legalization bill they plan to introduce in a few days. But part of the deal could jeopardize the governor’s support.

Lawmakers have been in talks for months to reconcile competing legalization proposals that have been brought forward by the House, Senate and the governor’s office. Many issues were resolved during the negotiations, but the question of who should be responsible for regulating the program – an existing agency or a newly created body – has been a sticking point.

Lawmakers are now signaling that the best way to keep both sides happy would be to create a compromise approach in which a state agency like the Department of Business Regulation (DBR) and a new independent cannabis commission each play a role.

House Speaker Joseph Sherkarchi (D) said in his opening speech at the start of the 2022 session on Tuesday that lawmakers had “spent months analyzing the complex issue of legalizing marijuana.”

“The House and Senate intend to prepare a bill soon, which will serve as a framework to launch 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 the way that works best for all Rhode Islanders.”

The speaker said in a recent interview with the Boston Globe that lawmakers “have come together on a framework that will likely be introduced in mid-January.” This will likely include a proposal to create a “hybrid model” to regulate the market.

But Gov. Dan McKee (D), who proposed that DBR regulate the cannabis industry itself in legalization legislation he tabled last year, has yet to approve the hybrid idea, has Rep. Scott Slater (D) told Marijuana Moment.

Having said that, “if we come up with a bill that most people support,” lawmakers do not expect a veto.

“I think we should have a bill soon,” said Slater, who introduced a bill to end the cannabis ban last year.

Senator Josh Miller (R), sponsor of a legalization proposal that was approved in the Senate last year, told Marijuana Moment he agreed 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 Speaker Dominick Ruggerio (R) said in his session opening address on Wednesday that the bill passed by the body last year “included substantial steps to right wrongs associated with policies of ‘ban that have lasted for decades’.

He noted that Senate leaders have been working in recent months with the House on a deal that “maintains the fundamentals of our proposal.”

“As a result of these efforts,” he said, “I anticipate the General Assembly will legalize cannabis this legislative session. “

Shekarchi told The Globe that the next negotiated bill could still be amended even after its introduction.

“But that doesn’t mean it’s the end,” he said. “This is the start of a process – a very solid, public and transparent process where I am sure the bill will continue to change and evolve. “


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The speaker previously said he would be open to compromise on the regulatory structure and hinted at the possibility of a hybrid model.

Another issue with the number of commercial marijuana licenses also seems closer to a resolution. Miller’s Bill offered up to 150 cannabis stores, while McKee’s plan called for 25 and Slater only wanted 15 in his separate bill. Miller said at an event in October that “we’re probably more in the 30, 40” range as part of a deal.

Negotiators also recently reached an agreement to impose a temporary moratorium on the approval of additional licenses for cannabis growers. Some have protested against adding growers beyond medical marijuana licensees because they say there is already enough supply to meet demand in the adult market.

Ruggerio, for his part, said in September that lawmakers were “very close” to reaching agreement on a bill to legalize marijuana.

“We sent a bill – which we think is a very good bill – to the House before we left in June,” the senator said, referring to the legalization bill his chamber approved in. June. “They are working on this legislation with some members of the House right now.”

Another thing that remains to be seen is whether the negotiated legalization bill that is ultimately produced will satisfy progressive advocates and lawmakers, some of whom have rallied around a reform agenda that emphasizes the need for provisions. bold social equity initiatives.

While each of the competing bills contains elements intended to address the harms of criminalizing marijuana, the coalition led by Reclaim Rhode Island said they were insufficient. Supporters and supportive lawmakers have presented specific elements they want to see incorporated, such as setting aside half of commercial cannabis licenses for communities most affected by prohibition.

“We cannot reverse the harms of the War on Drugs, but we can start to fix it by going automatic deregistration and waiving all related fines, fees and court debts,” said Representative Karen Alzate (D ), President of Rhode Island. The Black and Latino Legislative Caucus said in September. “This bold legalization plan offers us the chance to turn a new leaf for the State of the Ocean, and it is time we seized it.”

Ruggerio said he believes the legalization bill that was approved in the Senate contained “very strict social justice provisions” and that the write-off provision is “as close to automatic as it gets. “.

He also said in July that he was not disappointed that the House had not yet brought forward legalization legislation and that “what we really wanted to do was send it in and have them reviewed. When his chamber passed his cannabis reform measure.

A coalition of 10 civil rights and drug policy reform groups, including the Rhode Island chapters of the ACLU and NAACP, had called on lawmakers to move forward with the ‘passage of marijuana reform in the state before the end of 2021. But it didn’t work.

Lawmakers noted that neighboring states like Connecticut and Massachusetts have passed legalization, giving the legislature extra momentum to continue with state reform.

Shekarchi, meanwhile, said in July he had no intention of letting regional pressure dictate the timeline for when Rhode Island enacted a policy change. Social equity, license fees, collective agreements and home growing arrangements are among the outstanding issues 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 if he supported legalization it was “not one of my highest priorities,” adding that “we are not in contention with Connecticut or Massachusetts on this issue.” .

“I think we have to get it right,” he said, pointing to ongoing discussions with the House and the Senate.

The House finance committee discussed the governor’s proposal to end the ban at an earlier hearing in April.

The governor’s and rulers’ legalization plans are particularly different from the proposal former Governor Gina Raimondo (D) included in her budget in 2020. Before stepping down to join the Biden administration as trade secretary , she called for legalization through a state-run model.

McKee gave a first glimpse of his take on reform last January, saying that “it is time that [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.

At the end of 2020, the Senate Finance Committee began a preliminary review of legalization ahead of the 2021 session, with lawmakers generally accepting the 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 governor signed a landmark bill in July to allow safe consumption sites where people could use illicit drugs under medical supervision and receive resources for treatment. Harm reduction advocates say it would prevent overdose deaths and help de-stigmatize substance abuse. Rhode Island is the first state to allow facilities.

The Senate Judiciary Committee also held a hearing last year 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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