Debate focuses on 2 bills to legalize marijuana

Warwick Beacon ·

Advocates and opponents are making their stances heard as state legislators debate two bills to legalize recreational marijuana.

Lawmakers in the Senate Judiciary Committee heard testimony regarding both bills on April 1, holding both for further study.

Gov. Dan McKee’s proposal to legalize marijuana relies on a lottery system. McKee’s bill calls for 25 retail marijuana stores operating by next spring, with an equal number coming in two consecutive years, depending on market demand. Six proposed new medical marijuana dispensaries, along with the three current dispensaries, would be automatically eligible to sell recreational marijuana without going through a license lottery process. The governor also proposes an Office of Cannabis Regulation within the Department of Business Regulation.

McKee’s plan assures that five minority- or women-owned businesses would get retail licenses in each of the first three years. It would prohibit outdoor home growing, and it calls for a task force to study how best to reinvest revenue into minority communities and lower the barriers to the state’s cannabis industry.

McKee’s bill calls for a 10 percent tax on cannabis sales, on top of the current 7 percent state tax, and a 3 percent excise tax on cultivators based on weight. Approximately 15 percent of revenue would go to cities and towns.

Sen. Joshua Miller and Senate Majority Leader Michael J. McCaffrey are sponsoring a separate bill. The senators are against the lottery system, believing it has the potential to do the opposite of what’s intended, while preventing smaller entrepreneurs from entering the market.

Instead, under the senators’ proposal, S.658, a new, full-time state Cannabis Control Commission, appointed by the governor, would award licenses.

The Senate bill also creates a fund from marijuana proceeds that would provide assistance to people wanting to expunge their criminal records for previous marijuana-related offenses.

The Senate bill proposes a 3 percent local sales tax that would go to the communities hosting stores, on top of the state’s regular sales tax of 7 percent and a cannabis sales tax of 10 percent.

The bill would also legalize adult possession of up to one ounce of marijuana and allow residents to grow up to six plants, but it would ban public use and unsealed containers in cars.

Advocating for social justice

In response to the bills, a coalition of advocacy groups is calling on lawmakers to make social equity and racial justice the centerpiece of the state’s cannabis legalization law.

Organizations in the coalition include The Formerly Incarcerated Union of Rhode Island, Black Lives Matter Rhode Island, the Rhode Island Political Cooperative, Reclaim RI, the ACLU, and the Marijuana Policy Project.

Advocates say the bills are important starting points for a discussion about how to legalize cannabis equitably, but they contend more must be done to ensure that legal cannabis delivers justice to communities of color and working-class Rhode Islanders.

The coalition proposes amendments including automatically expunging cannabis-related criminal records; prioritizing and supporting worker-owned cannabis cooperatives and promoting the participation of poor and working-class people, particularly those directly impacted by cannabis prohibition; investing cannabis revenue in historically disenfranchised communities; and increasing representation of people directly impacted by cannabis criminalization on regulatory commissions and employment in the industry.

“We know [based on the data] that the criminalization of marijuana is a tool that has been used to disproportionately harms certain populations, particularly Black, Brown and poor communities here in Rhode Island. A tool that has resulted in collateral consequences that has created barriers to employment, housing, and education for tens of thousands of Rhode Islanders,” said Meko Lincoln of the Formerly Incarcerated Union of RI in a press release issued by Reclaim RI.

‘It should be a local decision’

“What our mayors, town managers, and council members have heard from their counterparts in other states is that, if Rhode Island legalizes marijuana, our cities and towns will bear most of the direct burden,” Brian Daniels, executive director of the Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns, wrote in his testimony. “While the Governor’s and the Senate’s proposals envision regulation and licensing at the state level, our communities will need to deal with the implementation and public concerns. As we have seen in Massachusetts, retail stores often bring traffic and congestion, while local public safety will need to respond to emergency calls and complaints about nuisance properties.”

Testifying on behalf of the League, Daniels said the 39 municipalities represented by the organization “may differ on whether they want marijuana facilities and sales in their respective communities, but they are united in their belief that it should be a local decision.”

Daniels argues that Article 13 of the state constitution endorses home rule and self-governance for cities and towns, thus the decision to legalize marijuana must be made at the local level.

Both the governor’s proposal and S.568 would require a community to hold a ballot referendum to block retail sales and operations. The deadline in the governor’s proposal is November 2021, while the Senate set a deadline for November 2022.

Members of the League of Cities and Towns oppose the mandatory opt-out ballot referendum and prefer the use of municipal ordinances to ensure local control, according to Daniels’s testimony. The Senate bill allows a local referendum during a scheduled statewide special election; otherwise, the vote would be administered via special election.

In his testimony, Daniels said, “Special elections are costly to administer and have historically low turnout. Our local officials are concerned that a special election would lead to a flood of special interest money in support of legalized marijuana and that a small number of voters would effectively make a permanent decision for the entire community … Once a marijuana business is licensed, local officials will have little ability to close it down even if a latter referendum is successful.”

The league is also concerned with the Senate requirement that three licenses be approved in any community with fewer than 30,000 residents, with another license allowed per additional 10,000 residents.

According to Daniels, “licensing decisions to sell regulated products with community impacts should be based on market demand and local health and safety conditions – not an arbitrary population-based quota.”

Under the Senate proposal, Little Compton, which has roughly 3,500 residents, would have three retail establishments, the same number as West Warwick, which has a population of roughly 29,000. At the other extreme, Providence would have approximately 150 licenses under the Senate proposal, in addition to the existing compassion center, which could sell recreational marijuana up to 50 percent of its sales volume.

“Unless a small community passed an opt-out referendum, said Daniels, “it could be forced to accept three retail establishments.”

Under the governor’s proposal, 25 new licenses would be issued a year, for a total of 75 through 2024.

“No matter how many licenses are authorized, cities and towns should have substantial input into the application review process,” Daniels said.

Warwick Mayor Frank Picozzi said in an interview on Tuesday that he “supports legalization with regulations” and believes that the decision to legalize should be uniform across the state.

Public safety concerns

Daniels also testified league members “are concerned about workforce management issues that could result in marijuana legalization.”

“Those employees in public works, public safety or other important positions could cause harm to the public if they were impaired at work,” he wrote.

Both the governor’s proposal and S.568 allow employers to establish policies prohibiting the use or possession of marijuana in the workplace and/or working under the influence. The governor’s proposal gives employers greater authority to conduct disciplinary action or terminate an employee whose drug test shows they were under the influence or impaired at work. Daniels does endorse the language in the governor’s proposal allowing employers to request information from the Department of Health that an employee holds a medical marijuana card.

In an interview on Monday, Warwick Police Chief Brad Connor said he and other members of the Police Chiefs Association are against the legalization of marijuana.

“If the bill passes and it’s legalized, you’re going to see an increased consumption by minors if it’s readily available out there, much like underage drinking,” he said, also wary of the potential for increased rates of driving under the influence and increased traffic related injuries and deaths.

“Our job is to uphold the laws. If it became legal, we would have to adjust our enforcement,” Connor said.

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