Pardon my excitement, but WE DID IT!! After years of coordinated advocacy efforts and many months of negotiations between stakeholders, at long last RI lawmakers managed to put a unified legalization bill to a vote on the House and Senate floors, where it passed with minimal opposition and was signed into law by the governor the very next day. Of course, we knew this was coming — not that it was inevitable, as many have opined over the last few years, but that at some point, our legislature would get its act together to join the rest of New England and much of the country in legalizing cannabis for adult use. But even though I meant it every time I said “this is really the year we make it happen,” a part of me was still in shock as I watched the House vote from a wooden bench in the gallery, the back wall lined with police officers standing in solidarity — a thin blue line of stoic opposition. After spending one third of my life advocating for this very moment, it was surreal to see the names of representatives light up in green, one by one, on the Capitol TV screen on the wall. I couldn’t help but well up with emotions as the final gavel fell, signifying the end of cannabis prohibition and the start of a new chapter in RI.
The Bill That Lived
Whether it was reduced stigma around cannabis due to legalization in 18 other states, continued advocacy work finally making an impact or just an increasingly acute awareness of the tax revenue being lost to MA every day, lawmakers seemed to come to the table with a different attitude this legislative session.
For the first time in ten years, they managed to put differences aside to come up with a singular bill to file in both chambers – a compromise between the needs and demands of all the various stakeholders, without diluting the best parts of each approach. It’s a tall order, but it was that spirit of collaboration, coupled with some critical last-minute amendments, that brought this legislation over the finish line to become one of the best legalization laws we’ve seen yet in this country.
- Possession – Adults (21+) can possess up to 1 oz of cannabis for personal use (maximum of 10 oz in storage per household) and possession of up to 2 oz for adults 18+ and older will be decriminalized, resulting in a civil penalty without the threat of jail time.
- Home Grow – Adults (21+) can grow up to 6 plants for personal use (3 immature / 3 flowering), as long as safety requirements laid out in the legislation are met.
- Expungement – While the automatic expungement process is pending (see “Stay Tuned” below), those eligible may petition the court immediately for expedited clearance of their case.
- Social Equity Fund – All fees paid by legal cannabis businesses will be directed into a dedicated fund to provide assistance to applicants from communities disproportionately impacted by the criminalization of cannabis.
- Licensing – New license structures will be available and set aside for social equity businesses (with at least 51% of owners or employees qualifying under specific criteria) and worker-owned cooperatives, the latter of which has never been done before – RI may have missed the boat on a lot of firsts when it comes to cannabis, but at least we can say that we led the way in one thing!
The Road to Retail
- “Hybrid” Dispensaries – Starting August 1, 2022 (mere weeks from now!), the first stores to open for adult-use sales will likely be the ones that are already open. The amended legislation expedites the licensing for existing medical marijuana dispensaries – for a $125,000 fee — in an effort to streamline the path to adult-use cannabis sales.
- New Licenses – Aside from the nine hybrid licenses that will presumably be granted to each of the existing compassion centers, 24 new retail licenses will also be available right away — of those, 25% of licenses must be awarded to social equity applicants, 25% to worker-owned cooperatives, and all 24 must be divided up equally between the six geographic zones laid out in the state.
- Cultivation & Vertical Integration – There will be a moratorium on new cultivation licenses for two yearsUnlike our existing dispensary business model, the new licenses will be retail-only, and no single entity will be allowed to possess more than one business license.
- Taxes – Retail cannabis sales will be subject to a 7% state sales tax, 10% state excise tax, and 3% municipal tax (the latter of which will only be available to those cities and towns that allow for cannabis businesses).
- Expungement — The amended legislation mandates for state-initiated (automatic) expungement of criminal convictions for misdemeanor or felony possession up to 2 oz, a process that must be completed by July 1, 2024.
- Regulatory Authority — An independent Cannabis Control Commission (CCC) and new advisory board will be created to help craft regulations. Members of the CCC will be appointed by the governor using a suggested list compiled by the legislature — a compromise that was reached after Gov. McKee raised concerns about the constitutionality of too much legislative control over appointees.
- Medical Marijuana — All fees associated with application, renewal, and cultivation of medical marijuana for personal use will be eliminated completely as soon as adult-use sales begin, perhaps as early as December of this year.
- Detecting Impairment — One of the more urgent issues to address as we move forward, at least according to opponents of the legislation, will be the criteria used by law enforcement to detect cannabis impairment in drivers. Proposed solutions include more “drug recognition experts” — a costly pseudoscientific training program, increasingly marketed to police departments in the age of legalization — the odor of cannabis, and blood testing of drivers for THC, but it should be noted that there are no scientifically reliable or valid forms of detecting cannabis impairment yet.
The work of building a stronger, more equitable cannabis industry in RI is far from over, but I believe we have laid a solid foundation with the Rhode Island Cannabis Act. I am sure that I will have plenty of opinions and criticism to offer as we move into the regulation and implementation phases, but for right now, I am quite proud of our small state.