News Analysis: RI to Legalize Recreational Cannabis

[See also “Opinion: Governor’s Proposal to Legalize Recreational Cannabis – A Self-Inflicted Wound”, Jan 16, 2019]

Gov. Gina Raimondo will soon formally propose to legalize recreational use of cannabis, citing pressure from legalization already accomplished in Massachusetts, Maine and Vermont; and from legalization widely regarded as imminent in Connecticut, New York and New Jersey.

Norman Birenbaum, of the RI Department of Business Regulation, through the governor’s office released a one-page summary – – and gave a half-hour presentation to the press – – of the plan expected to be detailed within the week. Legalizing purchases up to 1 oz and possession up to 5 oz per adult over 21, although households with more than one adult would be limited to 10 oz total, the plan would leave cannabis more heavily regulated than in any other state that has legalized recreational use.

Unlike all but one of the 10 states that have legalized so far, “marijuana home growing will be prohibited” for recreational use. The plan would add severe new restrictions on medical home growing: “Only medical marijuana patients demonstrating hardship will continue to be allowed to grow at home.” In response to a direct question from Motif as to what would constitute “hardship” allowing patients to continue home growing, the governor’s office cited existing Department of Health fee reductions in obtaining a medical permit if patients receive disability or veteran’s benefits: “These growing hardships would likely be a combination of those and/or if the patient attests that the products they need are not available through regulated licensees or they live too far from a medical compassion center to access medicine.”

Six medical compassion centers would be added to the three already operating in the state, with three of the new licenses going to holders of the existing licenses, Birenbaum said during his presentation. Recreational edibles would be limited to 5mg THC and could not be sold in packages of more than 20 units, Birenbaum said, and “high potency” forms of cannabis, such as “shatter” and “dabs,” would be prohibited. It was not clear to what extent a buyer could face legal jeopardy by bringing into RI for personal use product legal in MA but illegal in RI.

In response to a direct question from Motif, the governor’s office confirmed that under the proposal the approximately 20% tax applicable to recreational sales would also apply to medical sales. RI cities and towns could impose nearly any zoning and licensing restrictions on recreational sales, including complete prohibition.

Reaction to the proposal was varied.

New Attorney General Peter Neronha said that he would work with the governor, recognizing “that as surrounding states legalize the recreational use of marijuana, it is increasingly difficult for Rhode Island to do otherwise,” stressing the importance of preventing access by children and policing driving under the influence.

Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio expressed “significant concerns, particularly with regard to workforce issues, enforcement around edibles and impact on children.” Learning from Massachusetts, he said he wants to “proceed very cautiously.”

House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello said he wants to work with the governor: “I have expressed similar concerns about our neighboring states moving forward with legalization, leaving Rhode Island to bear the social costs without the benefit of the revenue. However, I still have mixed feelings.”

State Sen. Joshua Miller, long a leading proponent of legalization, did not yet know the details of the plan when Motif spoke with him by telephone on Sunday morning after the news broke, but he already heard concerns how growers would be treated. Because he understood the governor’s proposal to be in the context of the budget, he expects “the social justice components why many of us wanted to do this in the first place,” such as expunging criminal records for non-violent possession offenses, would have to be addressed separately.

Marc Shepard, co-founder and president of the New England Cannabis Network (NECANN), emphasized that the final legislation was unlikely to resemble the governor’s proposal, noting that it took two years of extensive revision for Massachusetts to craft their law. “I find it very difficult to believe that anybody would bother to legalize it while making home growing illegal… I doubt that would happen.” MA allows home growing with relatively few restrictions, he said, as long it is consumed or given away but not sold. It would be foolish to impose burdensome regulation to try to prevent a black market, he said, because “there are tens of thousands” of growers in RI already. He compared the political overcautiousness to gay marriage: “You had to do ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ in the military and then civil unions, we’ll do it easy, and then eventually said, ‘This is ridiculous so we’ll make it legal for everybody,’ and then we did.” As to whether cannabis is dangerous, he said, “I probably would put it on par with a terrible diet… Is it more dangerous than grain alcohol? Obviously not, nope, not in any way.”

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