PROVIDENCE — Rhode Island could see the legal sale of marijuana for recreational use come Dec. 1 under amended legislation headed for votes Wednesday in House and Senate legislative committees.
If approved by both full bodies and signed into law by the governor, who supports legalization, the state’s three existing medical marijuana dispensaries – already operating under strict regulatory rules – would be the first likely retailers, opening separate customer lanes for recreational products.
Thirty other retail stores would eventually open, including at six new medical marijuana dispensaries planned around the state. Dispensaries would hold hybrid licenses for medical and recreational marijuana sales, with recreational products taxed at a higher rate.
The amended bill makes no changes to how much a customer could buy and possess: up to 1 ounce of cannabis for those 21 and older, with no more than 10 ounces for personal use kept in a primary residence. It would also allow Rhode Islanders to grow a small amount of their own cannabis at home – starting, perhaps, just weeks after the legislation becomes law.
Since 2012 when Colorado first legalized recreational use of the drug, 17 other states have followed suit, including Connecticut and Massachusetts, whose stores in Fall River, Attleboro and North Attleboro advertise on huge billboards along Rhode Island’s highways.
Who gets to pick cannabis control commission members?
The chief sponsors of the legislation, Democratic Sen. Joshua Miller, of Cranston, and Rep. Scott Slater, of Providence, said Tuesday that the redrafted legislation resolves two stumbling points – the appointment process for a proposed three-member cannabis control commission, which will decide who gets the lucrative licenses to operate, and how the state will handle expungement of past marijuana convictions.
In March, when the lawmakers first filed their legislation to legalize, Gov. Dan McKee raised a “separation of powers” concern over how members of the cannabis control commission were to be appointed — and removed if necessary.
The House Speaker, the Senate President and the governor were to each appoint one member and the governor’s pick had to come from lists provided by legislative leaders. McKee said that infringed on his executive right to make such appointments.
The new legislation gives the governor the power to appoint all three commission members, said Miller and Slater, but still with the advice and consent of the Senate. And it eliminates Senate approval before anyone could be removed from the commission.
In a statement Tuesday, McKee’s spokeswoman Alana O’Hare thanked lawmakers for their collaboration on the legislation “including working out the separation of powers concerns our administration had expressed. While this bill is different than the governor’s original proposal – it does accomplish his priorities of making sure legalization is equitable, controlled, and safe. We look forward to reviewing the final bill that comes out of the General Assembly and signing legalization of adult use cannabis into law.”
Erasing past convictions for marijuana possession
Miller and Slater said one of the most notable changes in the redrafted bill is that it provides for automatic expungement of any civil or criminal conviction for marijuana possession that would be decriminalized by the bill – without requiring someone to file a request, pay a fee or have a hearing.
As originally proposed, the bill required individuals to request expungement. But after conversations with members of the judiciary, Miller and Slater said they were confident that a system can be developed to allow for automatic expungement.
The amended legislation sets a deadline of July 1, 2024, for the courts to provide automatic expungement to all who are eligible. It also provides an expedited process for those who wish to have their records expunged earlier.
Taxes, fees and community opt-outs
At a briefing with reporters, Miller and Slater said the new medical marijuana dispensaries would likely be next in line to sell recreational marijuana — and perhaps some would be ready to open by Dec. 1.
But it could be more than a year before separate retail stores opened, considering it took Massachusetts 16 months before the first retail marijuana stores opened after recreational use became legal.
How the cannabis control commission will decide who qualifies for a recreational retail license remains unclear.
But both Slater and Miller said they prefer a system based on merit, rather than a lottery, which was used to determine who won new licenses for the six new medical marijuana dispensaries.
Former Gov. Gina Raimondo had first proposed a lottery system to keep political favoritism out of the process. But Slater and Miller said the vetting system and qualification requirements were so stringent, as well as transparent, that they were not worried about politics playing any role in the selection process.
The amended bill makes no changes to the proposed 10% state cannabis excise tax that will be in addition to the 7% sales tax, plus a 3% local tax for the municipality where the sale takes place.
The original bill allows municipalities to opt out of allowing marijuana sales in their community by referendum, and the amendment clarifies that those currently hosting compassion centers will not have the option to opt out. Those hosting existing licensed cultivators or testing labs will be allowed to opt out, although those facilities will be grandfathered in.
The amended bill also adds a procedure for a community that opted out to revisit the issue in later years, and allows municipalities to ban cannabis use in public places by ordinance.
Social equity provisions
The sponsors emphasized that the amended bill does not change the measures they included in the original bill to reduce barriers to participation for those communities who were disproportionately affected by marijuana criminalization.
Their proposal uses licensing fees and penalties to fund technical assistance and grants to applicants and communities that have been impacted, and reserves one license in each of the six districts for a social equity licensee and another in each district for a co-op.
“Social equity has been a top concern for us throughout this whole process,” said Slater. “Senator Miller and I represent some of the communities that have suffered disproportionate harm from prohibition for decades, resulting in generational poverty and mass incarceration. The starting line isn’t the same for people in poor, urban and minority communities, and they deserve support to ensure they get the full benefit of participating in legalization.”
For participants in the state’s existing medical marijuana program, the amendment eliminates the current fees imposed upon patients, authorized purchasers and primary caregivers for registry identification cards and plant tags, effective when adult recreational use begins on Dec. 1.