Cannabis Legalization in RI: Where’s Our Law?

Massachusetts voted and decided to legalize marijuana. It then promptly shot itself in the foot over the question of how and on what timetable to fulfill that promise, but is lining up the ducks and now seems to be on track toward allowing canna businesses to actually operate.

The response among many Rhode Islanders has been, “Where’s our law?”

There’s little question that if the topic were put to a public referendum, legalization would be quickly approved (see “Opinion: RI Cannabis Blues – Legalize Before It’s Too Late,” by David Sorgman, on opposite page). But in RI it has not gone to the public.

RI was actually way ahead of the game (and of Massachusetts) when it was first proposed. Crafted by legislators Scott Slater and Josh Miller, and endorsed at various times by a host of colleagues, the bill has been heard by the House Judiciary Committee each year. Its fate has always been to be “held for further study” without the committee ever sending it for floor vote.

Interested in seeing exactly how this happens, I attended the first committee hearing of this year. Talking with those preparing to testify (mostly in favor of legalization), I asked if they expected anything different this time. Their answer in almost every case was yes. Why?

“In a word, Massachusetts,” said Beth Comery, spokesperson for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP). The general perception in this crowd was there is no time remaining to dither around – RI is about to be left in Mass’ dust, losing commerce, taxes and jobs to our northern neighbor. No part of our state is far enough from the Mass border to deter canna purchasing trips. “If we don’t change now to stay just behind Massachusetts, I don’t know what we’re doing as a state,” one attendee told me.

“We think the tides are moving in support of legalization and undercutting the black market,” said Michael Caplan, representing Brown’s Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP). “It’s definitely a less taboo topic now than a few years ago,” added Miguel Mendoza, also from SSDP. “Half of my family would want nothing to do with this, but the other half would be proud.”

I was skeptical that RI’s self-involved sandpit of political shenanigans would be able to get out of its own way, no matter how much sense legalization might make.

My original suspicion, based on many movies and TV shows that advise their heroes to “follow the money,” was some financial interest was blocking the bill’s progress. It’s not that simple. There are legalization opponents willing to spend money, but not many and not much. Some in the liquor industry view cannabis as competition – there are two liquor stores in RI that have banned this issue of Motif from distribution at their premises because they don’t want their customers “to know about cannabis” – but most understand the two are fundamentally different beasts: Alcohol consumption doesn’t seem to have diminished in Colorado. So that’s not where resistance is coming from.

There are some who believe “pot is bad” so strongly and simply that they fund organizations like Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM), a lobbying group that sponsored a spate of recent bus ads. Their “Are we sure?” campaign asks, “Are we really ready for a pot shop on every corner?”

And yes, there’s some backroom jockeying around who will control the flow of product and it will probably get worse if legalization is approved, but that is a separate issue.

I got a lot of information at this hearing “off the record” (that is, not for attribution), including assertions that much of the blockage ultimately comes from Speaker Mattiello. He is known for aggressive use of political force: I was at the State House last year when reps were summarily removed, over the loudspeaker, from their committee positions immediately after voting the “wrong” way on highway tolls. Mr. Mattiello is certainly capable of keeping a bill in perpetual limbo.

Others who spoke against legalization came from one of two perspectives. First, a law-and-order mindset, represented by Hopkinton Police Chief David Palmer, speaking on behalf of RI’s 40 (yep, we have 40) chiefs of police. The reasoning reminded me of the teetotalers who ushered in Prohibition: “Alcohol is bad. It causes deaths and destruction. It’s addictive. It ruins lives.” Well, yes. It also brings pleasure and release to a lot of people, and as a society we’ve decided that it’s up to the individual to decide when and how to drink. Society steps in if that individual makes dangerous choices.

Legalization opponents like the police chief are simply excessively dedicated to law-and-order. It was clear from his testimony that Chief Palmer had trouble distinguishing marijuana from other drugs, conflating statistics and discussing fatal overdoses that, when questioned, he acknowledged were not from marijuana – but, he claimed, “It’s pretty much the same.” At one point, the chief described a drug dealer who was dismembered by rival drug dealers, prompting Rep. Jeremiah O’Grady to ask, “Is it not fair to say that … If cannabis were sold legally, the number of marijuana dealers being dismembered by either patrons or rivals would decrease?”

“No, I believe there would be more”

“There would be more dismemberments? More marijuana dealers shot and killed?”

“Yes, there will be more if you legalize it.”

If you’ve been arresting and combating people who consumed or sold cannabis, it has to be frustrating to imagine them getting a pass in the future: They broke the rules and you just can’t let them do that. To this mindset, all drugs and drug dealers are the same. It’s the sort of intractability that represents law-and-order at its worst.

The other anti-legalization mindset I saw came from people who had friends or relatives who lost their ways in life, became addicted and, it sounded like, became the stereotypical stoners of the 1970s with no motivation or self-control, dependent and dragging their lives and those around them into downwards spirals.

That is tragic and does happen. Some people come back from that, and some never do. It also happens with alcohol. It happens with mental health issues. It happens with addictions of all sorts. Such dangerous choices should inspire society to step in and help, not condemn and imprison.

These mindsets of opposition actually come from good, honest places – I have an enhanced appreciation after seeing them testify with ardor, but I still think they miss the bigger picture. Marijuana is less destructive than other “freedoms” we agree on as a society. The very concept of freedom carries risk – and an assumption of responsibility. Too much of a good thing has always been a problem, whether sex, gambling, drinking or substances. Government struggles constantly between paternalism and protection of freedom on all of these issues. That struggle will continue, but how often has prohibition turned out to be the best answer?

Legalization isn’t really a matter of adding a law: It’s a matter of responsibly removing a restriction. Putting it off is becoming dumber by the year.

So, where is our law? After more than four hours of testimony, it was “held for further study.”


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