Cannabis Economic Justice Press Conference Recap

Left to right: Rep David Morales, author Eve Santana, Robert Peña, Zara Salmon, Kristina Contreras-Fox, Nina Harrison, Rep Leonela Felix. (Photo: courtesy of State of RI General Assembly)

On Thursday, May 16, at the Rhode Island State House, the Cannabis Policy Coalition, composed of Rhode Island small business owners, cannabis licensees, medical patients and professionals, university professors, concerned citizens, and aspiring cannabis business owners, hosted a press conference with Representative Leonela Felix in support of House Bill H7855. This bill aims to level the playing field for Rhode Islanders in the cannabis industry by redirecting cannabis sale tax towards social equity business assistance and community reinvestment.

My name is Eve Santana, I am a founding member of the Cannabis Policy Coalition, with an interest in how the cannabis industry can be used as a vehicle for social and economic justice to communities that were damaged as a result of failed cannabis laws. I spoke at the conference alongside Kristina Contreras-Fox from the RI Black Business Association, Zara Salmon, co-founder of the Cannabis Policy Coalition, Nina Harrison from the Economic Progress Institute, Robert Peña of PVD Flowers, Randy Noka, an elder from the Narragansett Tribe, and representatives Leonela Felix and David Morales. We all expressed our support for a more economically just cannabis industry and our commitment to achieving this beyond the current legislative session. Harrison and Noka highlighted the history of Black, Latinx, and Native Indigenous communities being disproportionately targeted and disenfranchised during prohibition. As cannabis laws are introduced across the country, more leadership is looking at how to use the industry as a platform for reparative justice. All speakers stressed the importance of ownership opportunities and community reinvestment in the state. Peña shared his personal connection to equitable business policies and cannabis regulations, noting how his involvement with PVD Flowers — soon to be one of the first worker-owned cannabis retailers in the USA — has been transformative, especially given the barriers obtaining a traditional cannabis retail license.

Representatives Felix and Morales inspired hope for fair cannabis policy changes in Rhode Island, emphasizing that people should come before corporate profits, and advocating for an inclusive industry. A big shout out to representative Scott Slater was in order, as he has championed cannabis policy, even before it was popular to do so in the region.

Rep Leonela Felix. (Photo: courtesy of State of RI General Assembly)

One proposed change in the Rhode Island Cannabis Act involves the allocation of revenue. The current law states, “The administrator shall deposit revenue collected pursuant to this chapter from the state cannabis excise tax or associated amounts as penalties, forfeitures, interest, costs of suit, and fines for failure to timely report or pay the state cannabis excise tax into the marijuana trust fund pursuant to § 21-28.11-13(d) and revenue from the sales tax into the general fund.” H7855 proposes, “The administrator shall deposit 50% of revenue collected pursuant to this chapter from the state cannabis excise tax and 100% of the sales tax into the general fund; 25% of cannabis excise tax revenue into the Cannabis Social Equity Assistance Fund and 25% of the cannabis excise tax revenue into the Disproportionately Impacted Areas Investment Fund.” This is just one of the changes proposed. Other changes include closing language loopholes that allow companies to exploit Social Equity programs without ownership genuinely representing Rhode Islanders, or providing generational economic support to the communities where licensees operate. Additionally, the changes emphasize promoting ownership among Rhode Island citizens rather than allowing out-of-state companies to expand their cannabis license footprint in the industry.

There was a palpable sense of excitement at the press conference. While engaging with elected officials, the Cannabis Control Commission staff, and the citizens of Rhode Island can be both exciting and exhausting — uniting everyone to prioritize the interests of everyday Rhode Islanders as this multi-billion dollar industry develops, remains the priority. Due to federal regulations, cannabis businesses cannot access traditional bank funding, and elected officials often view legalization primarily as a tax incentive rather than a social justice initiative. The Cannabis Policy Coalition is dedicated to informing lawmakers and regulators about the industry’s potential benefits for Rhode Islanders, while considering the evolving regulatory landscape of the industry.

We encourage everyone who cares about incremental progress towards a better future in Rhode Island to consider how cannabis policy can be leveraged to deliver much-needed resources to communities harmed by the failed war on drugs.