News Analysis: RI to Study, not Legalize, Cannabis

Every year a bill is introduced at the RI General Assembly to legalize recreational use of cannabis, regulating and taxing it similarly to alcohol. The state legalized medical marijuana in 2006 and decriminalized possession of small quantities for personal use in 2013, but that was the last major change in the law.

More than two years ago, Motif warned that RI would be forced to respond if Massachusetts (and Maine) legalized recreational use as expected by voter referendum in 2016, which is exactly what happened. We spoke with many of those working on the issue this past April who, despite the absurdities of the legislative hearing on the legalization bill – Hopkinton Police Chief David Palmer, speaking on behalf of RI’s 40 chiefs of police, testified to the committee that legalization would result in more marijuana dealers being killed and dismembered – were optimistic that the radically changed circumstances in neighboring MA would finally convince the RI legislature to act.

Jared Moffat, who for years until just recently had been director of Regulate RI and the state’s political director for the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) national lobbying group, told us in December 2015 that he believed legalization had the necessary votes to pass in each chamber of the General Assembly if the leadership would allow it to be put to a vote, a point he reiterated to us as recently as last month.

Perhaps feeling the pressure from MA, this year something new happened: instead of just letting the legalization bills die without so much as a vote, the House and Senate adopted concurrent resolutions to create a study commission: “The purpose of said Commission shall be to conduct a comprehensive review and make recommendations regarding marijuana and the effects of its use on the residents of Colorado and Washington to the extent available, and to study the fiscal impact to those states; and thereafter the potential impact on Rhode Island.”

The prime sponsors of legalization in their respective chambers, Rep. Scott Slater (D-10) and Sen. Josh Miller (D-28), published a joint statement in The Providence Journal in May, saying that the study commission was a sham: “The intent is to delay a vote on legalization for as long as possible. This is the seventh year that legislation to legalize marijuana has been introduced in the General Assembly. It has been discussed year after year in committee hearings, public forums and televised debates. Three out of five Rhode Islanders now want us to end our senseless policy of prohibition. It is time for the General Assembly to vote.” They continued, “To those who call for a ‘study commission,’ we ask, what are you waiting for? The data and evidence are already available to study. We have had decades to see that prohibition is a failed policy that does not reduce the availability or use of marijuana. How many more millions of dollars will we waste trying to arrest our way out of the problem? How much longer will we ignore the majority of our constituents who want reform? When 60 percent of voters support an idea, it’s reasonable to expect elected officials to at least vote on it. So we repeat: it is time for a vote.”

Moffat told us a few days after the vote to create the commission that he and his organizations would not be participating. “While the legislature’s study commission will rehash the same debate asking if marijuana should be legalized, we will move forward by facilitating a more useful discussion about how marijuana should be legalized and regulated,” he said.

Slater and Miller seem to have adopted divergent practical views of whether to participate on the study commission, Miller reported to have accepted an appointment in his capacity as a member of the Senate but Slater telling us in an interview that he had no interest in serving on it because he effectively saw it as a waste of time to continue to debate whether, rather than how, to legalize cannabis.

Motif was unable to get any clear information about the study commission from almost anyone in state government, with calls to the offices of House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello (D-15) and Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio (D-4) both unreturned by press time: the enabling legislation specifies that the commission meets initially when they call for it to meet, each appoints three members of their chamber to the commission (not more than two from the same political party), and between them they appoint all of the public members who do not serve ex-officio.

The 13 non-legislators on the 19-member commission are specified to be representatives from (1) the anti-legalization group Smart Approaches to Marijuana, (2) “an organization that is a proponent for the legalization of marijuana,” (3) a local chamber of commerce, (4) medical marijuana patients, (5) education, (6) mental health professionals, (7) and a criminal defense attorney, as well as ex-officio (8) the president of the Substance Use Mental Health Council of RI, (9) the executive director of the Rhode Island Medical Socity, (10) the director of the Department of Health, (11) the president of the Rhode Island Police Chief’s Association, (12) the attorney general, and (13) the president of the Rhode Island AFL-CIO. At first look the composition of the commission that will make decisions by majority vote seems biased against legalization, especially as the police chiefs and the attorney general have been very vocal in their opposition – even beyond worries about increased dismemberment incidents.

Despite the legislation itself directing the commission to meet “forthwith upon passage of this resolution” – over two months ago, it passed the House on June 28 and the Senate on June 29 – it has not yet met and we were unable to obtain even a list of members. The commission is also charged to report by March 1, 2018, and its mandate expires on July 1, 2018. If Miller and Slater are correct in their claim that the study commission is merely a delaying tactic, it seems to be working.