Legalize it? Law enforcement, municipal leaders wary of governor's pot plan

Warwick Beacon ·

Gov. Gina Raimondo did not address the proposed legalization of recreational marijuana during her State of the State address Tuesday, focusing instead almost exclusively on issues related to education.

But her support for legislation that would see Rhode Island join the growing ranks of states that have open the doors to legal pot has been the subject of intense renewed debate across the Ocean State – and many civic officials, law enforcement leaders and social services professionals says they are wary of the potential ramifications of such action.

The governor has framed the legalization plan as a necessary step in light of moves by neighboring states to permit recreational use.

Her administration has also presented the push as one informed by the experience of other states. An outline of the proposal provided by her press secretary, Josh Block, asserts that the governor’s plan will “create the strictest regulatory framework for any state in the country that has legalized marijuana.”

“Gov. Raimondo’s budget proposal this year will include the legalization and strict regulation of adult-use marijuana,” Block said in a statement. “As our neighboring states move forward with legal marijuana, the governor is mindful of its impacts on Rhode Island, from law enforcement to public health. Gov. Raimondo's priority is protecting the health and safety of Rhode Islanders.”

Critics, however, say the governor is moving too quickly – and have questioned her motivations.

“What’s clear for me out of this is, the governor isn’t doing this for any safety or security concerns, but was more motivated by the finances of it,” said Cranston Mayor Allan Fung.

“I’ve got some major concerns,” Johnston Mayor Polisena said. “I’m worried about our young children in school. To me, I don’t think this is something we can condone. They’ll say that Massachusetts and Connecticut are doing it … Well, if Massachusetts legalized prostitution, should we do that? It’s ABC, all ‘bout cash. But I think we should find money elsewhere or maybe we should cut our spending.”

“Although I recognize that other states are legalizing recreational marijuana for financial reasons, I have reservations relative to the effects this will have on job safety, motor vehicle and equipment operation and business manufacturing overall,” Warwick Mayor Joseph Solomon said. “Public safety will be my focus when gathering information about this issue. It’s not clear what effect legalizing recreational marijuana will have on the safety and productiveness of employees while they are at work. There are also questions regarding how this will affect the safety of other drivers on the road, and how we will police this issue. Without detailed answers to these concerns and other issues that have been expressed by law enforcement and the general public, I cannot endorse – or not endorse – legalizing recreational marijuana at this time.”

House Majority Leader K. Joseph Shekarchi (D-Dist. 23, Warwick) offered a broad take on the governor’s proposal.

“There are both pro and cons on recreational use,” he said in a statement. “The House will look at in great detail. There will be public hearings on the issue. I encourage everyone to testify, send comments and contact their elected officials to voice their opinions.”

Attorney General Peter Neronha’s office said through a statement that it “intends to carefully review the governor’s proposed legislation,” adding that if legalization proceeds, “it is imperative for strong regulatory measures to be put in place.”

The governor’s proposal is included in her budget plan for the fiscal year that will begin July 1. If it is approved, the first retail stores could open as early as January 2020. An Office of Cannabis Regulation would be established under the Department of Business Regulation to oversee the new market.

Would be taxed at 20%

Recreational marijuana would be taxed at an effective rate of approximately 20 percent, including the 7-percent sales tax, a 10-percent retail marijuana excise tax and a weight-based excise tax. The governor’s office projects this tax structure would generate $6.5 million in net revenue for the state’s general fund during the coming fiscal year.

The proposal also calls for 15 percent of gross revenue from marijuana sales to be directed to cities and towns, with larger shares for communities housing the most marijuana-related businesses. Municipalities would retain the right to prohibit recreational marijuana businesses through referendum or to limit them through zoning and licensing.

In contrast to Massachusetts and other states that have permitted marijuana’s recreational use, Raimondo’s plan would prohibit home-growing, although exceptions would remain for medical marijuana patients who demonstrate a hardship need.

The proposal would also authorize regulators to cap the potency of commercially available marijuana products, which the governor’s administration says would be a first-of-its-kind measure nationally. The quantity of purchases would be limited to one ounce.

Many law enforcement officials have long been skeptical of, or opposed to, moving toward the legalization of marijuana.

In a statement, Sidney Wordell, executive director of the Rhode Island Police Chiefs Association, said while his organization “has not been a part of any discussions of the governor’s proposal to date, we have been assured that we will be moving forward.”

Resources to regulate?

According to the statement, RIPCA’s “biggest concern is having the resources to allow our officers on the roads the ‘tools’ to do their jobs.”

“We have expressed that the state hasn’t given the appropriate resources to regulate, monitor and enforce the current regulations in place for our current medical marijuana program and now we are going to allow the vast majority of our residents to possess and use marijuana?” Wordell’s statement reads. “Inevitably our state will follow the trends of earlier ‘legalized’ states like Colorado and Washington where first-time users are at all-time highs and emergency room visits for users of edibles are through the roof.”

It continues, “Providing increased funding from the revenues of marijuana sales to local communities and their departments needs to be made a priority. Public sentiment that favors the right to possess and use marijuana, along with the state’s right to tax, cannot outweigh the public’s expectation to operate on our roads in a safe manner free of individuals under the influence of marijuana and other substances.”

Cranston Police Chief Col. Michael Winquest said he was “kind of taken aback” by the governor’s announcement of the legalization push.

“It wasn’t something that myself or any other law enforcement leaders anticipated was going to happen,” he said. Echoing Wordell, he said the police chiefs hope “to be more involved in the conversation as it relates to public safety concerns.”

Winquist outlined a number of specific concerns, pointing to roadway safety as the most significant. He said impaired driving cases are often difficult to prove in court and rely on officers certified as drug recognition experts – a designation currently held by only a handful of Cranston officers, and which is costly and time-consuming to obtain.

No roadside test

“There is no roadside test that we can do, and there’s no test we can do here at the station. We basically have to rely on the observations of drug recognition experts … We don’t have a DRE on every shift. It’s cost prohibitive and time prohibitive,” he said.

Winquist said there are companies rushing to develop roadside detection technology, but even then, existing laws are unclear regarding what constitutes intoxication when marijuana is involved.

“I do believe that once it becomes legal, there will be new users who probably didn’t use in the past … With that increase, we’ll probably see more operators on the roadway who are under the influence of marijuana,” he said.

He added, “I know the governor said they’re going to have some of the toughest regulations around. Who’s going to enforce those regulations? … Our departments are already taxed pretty heavily.”

The outline provided by the governor’s office states that as part of the plan, the Department of Public Safety will receive funding to allow officers to receive drug recognition training.

“Funding provided to municipalities will address this issue with local police departments,” the document reads.

The outline additionally states that drivers who refuse to undergo an evaluation by a drug recognition expert or a roadside chemical test for marijuana “will face a mandatory six-month suspension of their license.”

Winquist said he also worries about how young people perceive marijuana. Possession of one ounce or less is now classified as a civil offense in Rhode Island, and the colonel said officers have seen the change in attitude that has produced.

“We’ve seen an attitude with a lot of teens that say, ‘Oh, it’s not that big of a deal’ … Now, we’re going to the ultimate change,” he said.

The outline provided by the governor’s office states that “severe administrative and criminal penalties will be in place for those who distribute marijuana to minors.”

Winquist noted that marijuana remains a controlled substance under federal law. Fung said that fact has created concern on the municipal level.

The mayor said employees with a commercial driver’s license, or CDL, are subject to federal guidelines and can be drug tested randomly.

“What happens if an employee comes back with marijuana in their system in violation of CDL rules?” he said. “There’s still a conflict with federal law.”

Fung also questioned the proposed 15 percent of gross revenues that would be directed to cities and towns under Raimondo’s plan.

“We’re the ones locally that have to deal with the issues,”

Fung said he would favor putting legalization before Rhode Island’s voters through a ballot referendum, as was done in Massachusetts. Still, he said, “there are a whole host of issues that haven’t been vetted out yet.”

Polisena, a registered nurse, has long been an opponent of marijuana legalization. He spoke of his late brother’s struggles with substance abuse and 1987 death from an overdose.

“I believe marijuana is a gateway drug,” he said. “I think that sometimes we as a society can be hypocritical because we want to solve the opioid crisis, but yet we want to legalize marijuana … I think that I can speak from a position of knowledge, being a nurse, working in an emergency room, working on rescues for many years.”

Christine Harkins, president and CEO of Warwick-based Bridgemark Addiction Recovery Services, also expressed misgivings about the legalization push. She also questioned the necessity of allowing the cultivation and use of marijuana plants for medical purposes, saying other avenues are available.

“The medicinal effects, the medicinal assistance, of marijuana can be reduced to pills,” she said. “You don’t need to smoke marijuana and get high to take advantage of the medical assistance … I haven’t heard a lot of people talk about that.”

The directors of the Substance Use and Mental Health Leadership Council of Rhode Island, or SUMHLC – also known as The Leadership Council – were preparing to meet Wednesday afternoon to consider issuing a statement on the governor’s proposal. It was unavailable by press time.

(John Howell and Tim Forsberg contributed to this report.)