Are We There Yet?: Stakeholders discuss Governor McKee’s cannabis legalization plan

With 68% of Americans supporting legalization of cannabis, and activists calling for the related criminal justice reforms and broad social and economic justice measures, Rhode Island politicians have taken notice. Senate Majority Leader McCaffrey, in collaboration with Senate President Ruggerio, released a legalization blueprint earlier this session. And Governor Dan McKee is including a plan to legalize adult-use marijuana in this year’s budget proposal.

According to the proposal, sales would begin in April 2022 and would be taxed at a 20% effective tax rate. Twenty-five percent of cannabis revenues, in addition to the licensing fee revenue, would be allocated “to the regulatory, public health and public safety costs associated with adult-use marijuana,” with an additional 15% to cities and towns.

Anticipated expenses include “a $1.1 million investment dedicated to substance abuse education in health equity zones, $0.5 million in funding for local police, and $0.3 million to help the state oversee prevention and treatment programs.”

I interviewed members of Governor McKee’s Administration – director of the Department of Business Regulation Liz Tanner, dhief of the Office of Cannabis Regulation Matt Santacroce, and Brian Hodge – who gave me a clear picture of the governor’s new plan, which differs from former Governor Raimondo’s proposal in a few key ways. The former governor’s “plan envisioned a system of basically state-run stores” that would have required state bureaucracy to manage a series of private contractors,
regulated by provisions in their contract, explained Chief Santacroce. In contrast, “Governor [McKee] took the approach of setting up a market that will be populated by privately run businesses that are profit-seeking, but are totally regulated and tightly managed by the state pursuant to their licenses,” he continued.

Director Tanner explained, “We like to define this bill by three words: that’s equitable, controlled, and safe.” Governor McKee’s proposal would create “25 new, retail-only adult use licenses per year in the first three years of implementation, with a market demand study in the fourth year of implementation to determine to how many, if any, future licenses for retail storefronts will be made available,” said Chief Santacroce. The first five of those licenses each year would specifically awarded to “minority- and women- owned business candidates by way of a lottery, before the remaining 20 are allocated to the general applicant pool” in what they’re calling “a general lottery.” In addition to those 25 annual licenses, existing medical compassion centers “will be awarded an additional hybrid retail license which will allow them to sell to both the medical patient population and adult use retail customers” if they meet baseline criteria, Chief Santacroce continued.

When asked about how equity was prioritized in the plan, Santacroce explained that they would be offering “supporting” or “ancillary” licenses that are “less profitable but also less capital-intensive entry points into the cannabis industrym” made available in areas like manufacturing, processing, and transportation. In addition, the bill would invest money in Rhode Island’s Health Equity Zones,

Santacroce also described the Governor’s Cannabis Reinvestment Taskforce, “which will be made up of stakeholders from government and from outside of government, and will be charged with making a recommendation to the administration after the first year for long-term investment of cannabis revenues.”

A common aspect of the legalization discussion is the expungement of records for past convictions, and creation of programs to repair the damage that the War on Drugs has inflicted on communities, in particular communities of color. “You won’t see anything on expungement and criminal justice directly reflected in the text of the governor’s marijuana proposal,” said Santacroce, “but that is in no way a signal that the administration is not supportive of that concept and that work.” McKee has gone on record in support of Chairwoman Representative Anastasia Williams’ bill on automatic expungements, and according to Chief Santacroce, Governor McKee “is working actively with Chairwoman Williams’ and the other sponsors to help move that forward.”

Cannabis legalization activists see the Governor’s plan as a step in the right direction, but want to see a more direct emphasis on criminal justice reform and reparation of harm. I spoke with Maggie Kain, who is part of the Yes We Cannabis Rhode Island Coalition, a collaborative of activists and organizers.

Speaking on behalf of the coalition, Kain said “Our coalition – Yes We Cannabis Rhode Island – are really excited that Governor McKee has taken legalization seriously, and we know that he really is trying to center criminal justice reform and community reinvestment into his plan. And we would love for him to look into his ability to give a general pardon of these [cannabis related] offenses, so it would remove the burden from those with prior convictions. So we hope, if he’s saying that he does want to center
criminal justice reform in his legalization bill, that we will take that seriously.”

Kain explained that the coalition has outlined four important parts of a good cannabis legalization plan. The first is “automatic expungement for anyone with a prior ‘marijuana offense’” to ensure that prior convictions don’t continue to negatively affect people’s lives, and that the cost and legal burden isn’t placed on the person seeking the expungement. The second is that “cannabis should be taken off the Rhode Island Controlled Substance list” and declassified, so that legal loopholes – like needing “written
permission from your landlord to be able to consume cannabis” and the arbitrary enforcement of possession limits – don’t continue to be enforced, and often targeted at Black and brown communities. The third is that a bill should be “centered in criminal justice reform, social equity, and community reinvestment,” so tax revenue “specifically earmarked to reinvest in communities that have been disproportionately targeted by arbitrary drug laws, earmarked and put into a locked account.” And the
fourth, Kain continued, is “making sure that the cannabis industry is available to people with prior marijuana convictions,” so the state will invest in businesspeople “that were in the cannabis industry when it was not regulated by the state” rather than locking them out.

“There are so many pieces of it, but the most aspect is to help repair the harm.”