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Senate introduces cannabis legalization bill – Does it do enough for victims of the failed War on Drugs?

“Unlike Illinois, New Jersey, and other states, this legalization proposal makes no provision for reinvesting cannabis tax revenue in communities that have been disproportionately impacted by cannabis prohibition laws,” writes Yes We Cannabis RI, a legalization and social justice advocacy group. “A significant portion of cannabis tax revenue should be dedicated to repairing the decades of harm caused by the War on Drugs.”

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Though not the first bill to seeking to legalize recreational cannabis introduced in Rhode Island, the bill unveiled yesterday by Senators Joshua Miller (Democrat, District 28, Cranston) and Michael McCaffrey (Democrat, District 29, Warwick) has some political juice. McCaffrey is the Senate Majority Leader and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio (Democrat, District 4, Providence), who has long opposed legalization, is a co-sponsor of the bill.

The proposed legislation, S0568, seeks to create a comprehensive tax and regulatory structure that legalizes cannabis in the State of Rhode Island. If enacted, a Cannabis Control Commission would oversee a competitive and accessible licensing structure that would generate tax revenue through the sales tax, a special sales tax, and a local sales tax.

The legislation has been sent to the Senate Judiciary Committee for vetting and public comment.

The bills seeks to:

  • Legalize the possession of up to one ounce of cannabis by individuals over the age of 21,
  • Allow for home grow comparable to neighboring Massachusetts,
  • Prohibits Cannabis consumption in public places, and
  • Prohibits unsealed containers from the passenger areas of a car.

Additional Senate sponsors include Senators Maryellen Goodwin (Democrat, District 1, Providence), Cynthia Armour Coyne (Democrat, District 32, Barrington), Walter Felag (Democrat, District 10, Tiverton, Warren), Louis DiPalma (Democrat, District 12, Little Compton, Middletown, Newport, Tiverton), Susan Sosnowski (Democrat, District 37, Block Island, South Kingstown), Ryan Pearson (Democrat, District 19, Cumberland), and Jonathan Acosta (Democrat, District 16, Central Falls).

An alternative, or perhaps complimentary cannabis legalization plan, is expected from the administration of Governor Daniel McKee this week.

“Cannabis legalization is a monumental shift in public policy that effectively creates a new economy,” said Senator Miller, who also chairs the Senate Committee on Health and Human Services. Miller is a long time advocate for legalization. “We want to ensure as many Rhode Islanders as possible have the opportunity to participate in this new economy. That is why we set low, tiered licensing fees and we are also calling for the creation of a Cannabis Equity Fund to help individuals who have been directly and indirectly impacted by our past policy of prohibition.”

The Commission would be a five-member, full-time board tasked with overseeing the licensing of four aspects of the cannabis supply chain: cultivation, manufacturing, retail, and testing. To prevent monopolization of the new market, no business entity would be allowed to possess more than one license.


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The legislation also creates the Cannabis Equity Fund to provide technical and grant assistance to qualified individuals and a fee-free mandatory expungement process for individuals with marijuana related offenses.

“Cannabis legalization is as much about reconciliation as it is revenue,” said Majority Leader McCaffrey. “The Justice Reinvestment prison reform initiative showed that policies of prohibition have disproportionately impacted communities of color, and I believe we must ensure any effort to legalize cannabis recognizes and rectifies those wrongs. Low barriers to entry, expungement reform, and broad access to programs designed to increase access for individuals and communities impacted by the failed War on Drugs are an important and necessary component.”

Community concerns:

While happy that the General Assembly is taking cannabis legalization seriously and developing a plan to align our policies with other states that are taking a smarter, more equitable approach, the advocacy group Yes We Cannabis RI has “serious concerns about the Senate’s bill related to social equity and justice.”

Yes We Cannabis RI seeks not only the decriminalization of Cannabis, but also to “restore people and communities” hit hard by the failed War on Drugs that targeted BIPOC communities for decades. Yes We Cannabis RI presented their concerns in a statement to UpriseRI:

  1. In the area of expungement, we strongly urge the General Assembly to amend this section of the bill to:
    1. Allow expungement for all offenses regardless of the weight or amount of cannabis involved,
    2. Expand eligibility to cover all cannabis offenses under the Controlled Substances Act (not limited only to possession, sale, and distribution), and
    3. Create an automatic expungement system that does not place a burden on individuals to bring forth petitions to the courts.
  2. The regulating agencies and advisory committee do not make any space for people who have been directly impacted and harmed by cannabis prohibition laws. Both the Cannabis Control Commission and the advisory board should include substantial representation from people who have been harmed by the War on Drugs.
  3. The social equity licensing program needs to be substantially expanded and strengthened.
  4. Unlike Illinois, New Jersey, and other states, this legalization proposal makes no provision for reinvesting cannabis tax revenue in communities that have been disproportionately impacted by cannabis prohibition laws. A significant portion of cannabis tax revenue should be dedicated to repairing the decades of harm caused by the War on Drugs.
  5. It is crucial that cannabis be removed from the Controlled Substances Act to eliminate excessively harsh penalties for any activities involving cannabis that are not explicitly permitted in the legislation.

Yes We Cannabis RI will be providing a more detailed explanation of recommendations for improving S0568 and they encourage all who support social equity and justice to join the Yes We Cannabis coalition by signing up at yeswecannabisri.com and following our social media pages (Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram).

Taxes

The impetus for legalization comes in part due to the financial impact of the pandemic. Rhode Island missed its chance to legalize cannabis before neighboring states did, losing sales and tax revenues to Massachusetts.

The Senate bill proposes taxes on cannabis in addition to the three percent local sales tax and the state’s regular sales tax. An additional cannabis sales tax of ten percent would be applied to consumer sales.

Sales license fees would range from as low as $100 for a small cultivator’s license, $5,000 for manufacturers and testing entities’ licenses, and up to $20,000 for the largest cultivators and retailers.

Once passed, the Cannabis Control Commission would be empowered to establish rules and regulations for the state’s cannabis market and tasked to vet applicants. Retail licenses would be capped at one license per 10,000 residents per municipality, but every community would be eligible for at least three retail licenses. While cities and towns would have the opportunity to opt-out through voter referendum, in doing so they would forgo their opportunity to garner a three percent local tax collected at point of sale. Communities could pass local ordinances to regulate the time, place, and manner of cannabis operators; however, local communities could not impose any additional fees or contingencies.

“We want to provide cities and towns with the ability to opt-out, but we cannot allow an overly burdensome patchwork of regulation throughout our state,” said Leader McCaffrey. “We know from experiences in other states that less parochialism and lower fees leads to greater transparency and a more competitive market. If a community wants to opt-out and forgo tax revenue that is one thing, but we also need to make sure the process is open and transparent.”

“We have worked for many years to develop and improve legislation that implements a cannabis tax and regulatory structure,” said Senator Miller. “Over the years, I have sponsored legislation and led commissions, and we have all learned from the experiences in other states. The approach we are taking is not just about tax revenue. It’s about rectifying past wrongs and opening new opportunities. And it’s about smarter drug policy. Prohibition clearly didn’t work, and is next to impossible with the availability legal cannabis just over the state border. I’m excited to be introducing this legislation today and look forward to the hearing process.”

About the Author

Steve Ahlquist is Uprise RI's co-founder and lead reporter. He has covered human rights, social justice, progressive politics and environmental news for nearly a decade.

atomicsteve@gmail.com