Legal Marijuana In Rhode Island? What A Difference A Massive Budget Deficit Can Make

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A big drop in revenue because of the coronavirus has some lawmakers reconsidering their opposition to recreational marijuana

PROVIDENCE — Momentum is building to legalize recreational marijuana in Rhode Island now that state budget deficits are looming and the marijuana business is booming in neighboring Massachusetts.

Less than a year ago, state Senate leaders were dead set against Governor Gina M. Raimondo’s proposal to legalize recreational cannabis by setting up a system of state-controlled pot shops, much like New Hampshire’s state-run liquor stores.

In December 2019, Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio, a North Providence Democrat, told the Globe he was concerned about the “debilitating effect” that the proposal would have on youths in the state. “If we have an education problem in this state, why would we legalize marijuana?” he said.

Likewise, Senate Majority Leader Michael J. McCaffrey, a Warwick Democrat, said there wasn’t enough information about the consequences of legalization. “Massachusetts is starting to realize the side effects of it, and insurance rates are going up,” he said at the time. “We are seeing more accidents in Massachusetts because of impairment from marijuana.”

What a difference a massive budget deficit can make.

Senate leaders sent a much different message during and after the Nov. 6 Senate Democratic caucus.

“The time has come to legalize adult cannabis use,” McCaffrey declared. “We have studied this issue extensively, and we can incorporate the best practices as learned from other states.”

Rhode Island’s prohibition on recreational marijuana no longer makes sense given the “robust” system that Massachusetts is establishing just over the border, McCaffrey said. “We can create jobs, capture lost tax revenue, and fund important social programs,” he said.

After the caucus, Ruggerio acknowledged that even though he had some concerns in the past “about the social costs that exist with that,” he now is willing to reexamine the issue.

“We are in a tough situation as far as our revenue is concerned,” he said. “I don’t want to look at it just as a revenue source. So I’m interested in seeing what we can come up with similar to what we have done with the medical marijuana.”

The new direction comes as five more states legalized marijuana on Election Day.

Voters in New Jersey, Arizona, and Montana approved measures legalizing marijuana for adults age 21 and older. South Dakota became the first state where voters authorized both recreational marijuana and medical marijuana via two separate initiatives in the same election. And medical marijuana won approval in Mississippi.

Another factor: House Speaker Nicholas A. Mattiello, a Cranston Democrat, lost his race in the Nov. 3 election. And his presumed replacement as House Speaker, Democrat K. Joseph Shekarchi of Warwick, said Tuesday that he’s open to discussing the proposal.

“I want to hear from the advocates,” Shekarchi said, “as well as those from law enforcement, the attorney general’s office, the auto insurance industry, medical professionals, and educators.”

While Raimondo has proposed state-owned marijuana operations, he said other models should be examined as well.

Raimondo’s budget proposal included nearly $21.8 million in revenue from marijuana sales in fiscal year 2020, $21.1 million in 2021, and $39.6 million in 2022.

Because of the pandemic, the legislature has not yet approved a budget. The Senate Finance Committee is scheduled to meet at 5 p.m. Wednesday to hear testimony on budget articles, including one addressing adult use of marijuana. But legalizing pot is seen as a decision for 2021, rather than a quick budget fix.

Jared Moffat, campaigns coordinator for the Marijuana Policy Project and director of Regulate Rhode Island, said 15 states have now legalized recreational use of marijuana. “I’m a little surprised South Dakota and Montana have beaten Rhode Island to the punch,” he said.

Moffat argued that it is better public policy for the state to regulate marijuana rather than have it remain uncontrolled as part of an underground market. “It makes sense from a public safety and public health perspective,” he said.

Also, Moffat said the budget crisis created by the pandemic will only be more painful if the state refuses to legalize and regulate recreational marijuana use.

“If I’m a state lawmaker looking at the budget, not legalizing marijuana is turning down tens of millions of dollars,” he said. “What is on the chopping block because people are unwilling to update a law that 15 states have changed?”

Senator Joshua Miller, a Cranston Democrat who chaired a commission that studied legalizing recreational marijuana 10 years ago, said Rhode Islanders now have easy access to marijuana in Massachusetts, and the revenue derived from regulating marijuana here could help fund programs and address concerns about people younger than 21 using the drug.

Miller said he thinks the General Assembly will legalize recreational marijuana in 2021, and he said it makes sense to model the system after the one in Massachusetts. “It’s a lot easier to copy a state, especially a bordering state with similar economics, rather than to start from zero,” he said.

Miller, who chairs the Senate Health & Human Services Committee, said that while he is a longtime advocate of legalization, his priorities amid the pandemic include increasing use of telemedicine, codifying the Affordable Care Act, and expanding access to overdose prevention services.

But it is almost certain that recreational marijuana will be considered in 2021.

Ruggerio noted that Shekarchi has said that “everything is on the table” as legislators figure out how to close a gaping hole in the state budget. And, he said, “I don’t want to put my personal objections ahead of anything that could be good for the people of the State of Rhode Island.”