Rhode Island Senators Question Governor Gina Raimondo’s Cannabis Plan


Rhode Island senators questioned and expressed skepticism Tuesday about whether a plan put forward by Gov. Gina Raimondo to legalize adult-use cannabis is sufficient to deal with public health and law enforcement’s concerns.  

Members of Raimondo’s administration framed cannabis legalization an unavoidable recognition of legalization in surrounding states and a way to ensure Rhode Island has its own protections and tax revenue to deal with the any potential negative outcomes. The bill, Article 20, would also expand the state’s medical cannabis program.

Rhode Island has one of the highest per capita cannabis usage rates, and its border towns in Massachusetts will soon have storefronts that Rhode Islanders can access, officials said. Nearby New York, Connecticut and New Jersey are also moving toward adult-use legalization.

“There’s a question of ‘Are citizens going to be driving over the state line buying this product and we won’t have the revenue to deal with it?’” Norman Birenbaum, a policy analyst for the Department of Business Regulation, told senators.

Raimondo attached the adult-use cannabis legalization to her state budget, essentially guaranteeing a reluctant legislature will take the debate more seriously, said Jared Moffat, an advocate for the Marijuana Policy Project.

“[The governor’s] tone has been ‘I’m doing this reluctantly,’ which is unfortunate and not the best way to sell a policy,” Moffat told Cannabis Wire in an interview. But he said that the governor forcing the debate will push lawmakers to confront the issues head on. “Usually they just have a hearing and never vote on it,” he said.

At first pass during a wide-ranging hearing on Tuesday, senators said the administration’s argument fell flat, but it wasn’t clear whether they would try to change or strengthen the bill or reject it altogether.

Some lawmakers, though, would clearly need a lot of convincing. Democratic Sen. Louis DiPalma questioned why the state would endorse something that the bill’s backer admits will have adverse health and public safety effects.

“We’re just choosing to say we’re going to make more money off of this,” DiPalma said.

Several senators said the bill needs to do more to address youth use and public health campaigns. “Why can’t we use this as an opportunity to really up our game in terms of educating our children?” Sen. James Seveney asked. “What I’d like to see is more resources from whatever money we’re going to get from this program to educate our kids.”

The proposed measure is billed as having the country’s strictest regulations, in part because it excludes home growing. It allocates dollars toward public health and law enforcement, but not toward equity provisions to help communities most impacted by the War on Drugs.

Moffat said he hopes to work with lawmakers to include those improvements as the bill moves forward.

In some cases, the governor’s push to be stringent may have gone too far, senators said. Sen. Stephen Archambault told officials that the felony penalty proposed for distributing cannabis to a minor was draconian. He said the penalties should be similar to selling alcohol to a minor.

“That’s wrong, that’s misplaced,” Archambault said. “That needs to go, and this section needs to be reworked.”

A similar hearing has been scheduled for Wednesday for House members to hash through the details of the bill, which, according to a MPP summary and the bill, include:

  • A cumulative tax rate of 20% of the sale price, with 15% of tax revenues going toward all municipalities and 25% toward state regulators and public safety;
  • A new Office of Cannabis Regulations which would regulate the adult-use, medical and hemp markets;
  • No employee protections for those who are found to use cannabis;
  • A bar on any form of advertising where the audience could include “unless at least 85% of the audience is reasonably expected to be 21 years of age or older.”
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