Cannabis: State of the State

This is part 1 of a 2-part interview: See part 2 of this interview

Jared Moffat has been the point of the spear in the cannabis legalization movement in RI for the last several years. He works for the Marijuana Policy Project as that national anti-prohibition organization’s representative in RI,jared has organized visits by the state employees responsible for legalization in other states to advise local lawmakers, has conducted rallies and protests and worked tirelessly lobbying for the issue at the state house. His motivation for the cause comes largely from a social justice perspective, and he took the opportunity as a fresh graduate from Brown. It is not the first time he graces these pages: We spoke with Jared to get an update on proposed legislation to tax and regulate marijuana like alcohol.

Mike Ryan (Motif): What’s the last year been like?

Jared Moffat: Our entire push this year was to get the House and Senate to allow a vote on the floors of both chambers. This is popular among the residents of the state – roughly 3/5 support this – and a bill has been produced for 7 years in a row, and there has never been a vote. It’s time for voters in the state to know where their legislators stand (Ed. note: – last year Motif did a poll of legislators on this issue. You can see the results at http://motifri.com/cannabiscandidates/. Our staff spent weeks contacting every legislator. The vast majority declined to comment by email or by phone). Even if it failed and was voted down, the voters deserve to know where their senators and representatives stand.

Unfortunately, the leadership didn’t agree and once again blocked the vote. Despite the fact that we felt pretty sure that if there was a vote in the committees, it would go to the floor.

The process: Each bill is delegated to a committee of 10 – 15 legislators, who vet arguments, hear testimony and examine the law for possible revisions or adjustments. When they feel comfortable with a piece of legislation, they vote on whether to turn it over to the larger body for an actual vote. While calling that first committee vote is officially the purview of that committee chair, in reality that decision is rarely made without a behind-closed-doors endorsement by, respectively, the Speaker of the House and the President of the Senate.

MR: How does it get blocked?

JM: Ha. That’s a good question. The committees are supposed to have some autonomy. That’s why there’s a chairperson of each committee and a leadership structure within each committee. They’re supposed to hear testimony and decide if each law merits consideration and debate on the floor. That’s what they’re supposed to do. But frankly the way they work in Rhode Island, they’re simply extensions of the House leadership and Senate leadership respectively. Basically, we were told [off the record], “Sorry, you’re not going to get these out of committee because we haven’t gotten the okay from the Speaker on the House side and from the President on the Senate side.” So, ultimately I think it’s important for people to understand that it’s a sham of a process. You would think that if a chair of committee supported an issue, or at least wanted there to be a vote on an issue, that they could do that. But that’s not in fact how it works. If you don’t get approval from the top, then nothing can move. We have a top-down legislature that’s dysfunctional, and a process that’s broken.

We wanted to rally supporters to call that out. That’s also why we refused to participate in this joke of a study commission [the legislature recently appointed a study commission to “further study” what the committees have been theoretically studying for the last 7 years. More about that in future issues.]

It’s one thing for the speaker to say, “I’m against this, and I’m going to cast my one vote against this,” that’s fine – that’s how it’s supposed to happen. If you feel that’s the right vote for you to pass based on your constituents, then great.

MR: But this way, he’s essentially exercising a veto.

JM: Right now, he’s essentially setting statewide policy, not just representing his district. It’s not this way in all states. There are states like Vermont, where the leadership was very opposed but they still allowed a debate and they still allowed the legislature to vote on it. I think it’s really an obstruction of democracy to not allow a vote at all. I’m very frustrated with that. I think our supporters are very frustrated with that. It’s a sign of how dysfunctional our state government is here.

MR: It sounds like the committee chairs could call for a vote procedurally, but they won’t without the blessing of the speaker and the president outside of the process.

JM: I don’t know what those private conversations are like, but essentially the upshot is if you don’t have permission from the leadership, you’d better not go forward with anything because if you step out of line, you may find yourself not the chair of a committee for very much longer.

MR: I was in the statehouse when they voted on the new highway tolls. Not long after the vote was concluded, there was an announcement over the speaker that several reps had been removed from various committees. They were all people who had voted against the new tolls, and it was the same day. I was in a room full of lawmakers who heard the announcements and just shrugged. Sorry – tangent!

JM: I think it’s very relevant. That’s very obvious to anyone who spends a lot of time in the state house… If you cross the wrong person at the top, you’re not going to maintain any position of influence. This isn’t really about marijuana, it’s about the flawed process through which the state tries to perform policy.

Essentially, it’s been policy established by one person, the Speaker. Now the senate President is saying, “I should have some influence as well.” The Speaker and Senate President are essentially at war right now. Which is unusual, because normally the Senate doesn’t even put up a fight. For year’s it’s really been just one person. Now that’s not much better, right, since it’s still only two people who control what issues get votes and what issues don’t. That’s just not democracy at all. That’s a deeper issue, though.

MR: As it becomes legal in Massachusetts, do you think that will produce a change? What’s going to be the wake-up call?

JM: When I was talking to legislators after Massachusetts made it legal, I think there was a lot of denial. They were saying, “Oh, yeah, but they’re not really going to make it legal for a while…” They’ve basically been proven wrong. The governor of Massachusetts has signed the compromise bill to kick off implementation. Their speaker is on record as expecting sales to start in July of next year. RI shot itself in the foot – it’s going to be legal for most Rhode Islanders within a 10-minute drive. What are you really doing by not legalizing then? You’re not preventing legal access. All you’re doing is denying the state economic growth in terms of jobs and new businesses and tax revenue. We as a state had a platform for economic growth on the table and we basically said, “No thanks.” What have we accomplished? We’ve only set ourselves back in terms of economic competitiveness with our neighbor.

MR: Do MPP folks in other states think RI is nuts?

JM: Well, yeah. I do think RI is a little bit of an outlier. There are shenanigans in other states too, of course. But it’s important to remember there’s never been a state to legalize through the legislature. That’s never happened – the others have all been by public referenda. The legislature can put questions on the ballot, but they’re non-binding. Except for constitutional amendments and bond issues, we don’t have a mechanism to put legalization in front of the public.

MR: So if we ever actually pass it, we’ll get some points for that.

JM: Sure.

MR: I heard a rumor that you’re leaving the state.

JM: Yes, Rebecca [Nieves-McGoldrick, his wife] and I are leaving at the end of August. MPP will likely hire someone new either part time or full time to play the role that I’ve been playing. It was a tough decision for sure, but ultimately we feel like it’s time to start the next chapter in our lives. We’re thinking about grad school and where we want to make our home, and we love RI and our lives here, and I’m super grateful for the experiences we’ve had here. But we’re ready to check out some other places, so we’re gonna backpack around Latin America a little bit and see where we end up.

MR: Has your frustration with this process played a role in that decision?

JM: I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little burned out. That is part of it. There’s also a little bit of, “Donald Trump is President and there are a lot more issues than marijuana.” There are a lot of factors. But mostly, we always felt this would be a chapter in our lives, not our whole lives, and it’s time to see some of the rest of the world.

See part 2 of this interview

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