Rhode Island is surrounded by cannabis legalization. And on Tuesday, for the first time, one of the state’s chambers passed a legalization bill. Also on Tuesday, Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont signed an adult use bill into law.
With adult use laws in neighboring New York and Massachusetts, too, legalization in Rhode Island is a matter of when, and not if. And, of course, how. This legislative session, there have been three competing proposals at play in Rhode Island: one from Gov. Dan McKee, and one from each chamber of the legislature.
On Tuesday, the first of these proposals received a floor vote, and was passed out of the Senate by a 29-9 vote.
Senator Joshua Miller, one of two lead sponsors of Senate Bill 568, called Tuesday’s vote “historic, as it is the first time a bill to legalize and regulate cannabis has reached the floor of either legislative chamber in Rhode Island.”
Miller thanked lawmakers who, over the years, engaged in the legalization discussion, regardless of whether they were for or against legalization, because their feedback was “serious and constructive.”
“We have arrived at this point about ten years later than I would have liked and it is important that we act expeditiously to enact a regulatory framework,” Miller said, pointing toward Lamont’s signature in Connecticut on the very same day. Massachusetts, he said, opened shops just “steps from the Rhode Island border.”
Miller said the legislation is “urgently needed,” in part because of how quickly neighboring states are moving.
“The longer we wait, the more we put Rhode Island’s eventual cannabis retailers at a disadvantage. The longer we wait, the more Rhode Island customers are getting into the habit of traveling to a nearby shop over the border, and the more they are building relationships with those companies,” Miller said.
Senator Samuel Bell highlighted the work that lawmakers and activists had done for years to get to the point where the Senate passed such a bill for the first time, and noted what he called “improvements.”
“I think this is the best legalization bill we’ve seen in a long time. I think it’s the best of any of the versions that we’ve ever had, House, Senate or governor. And so there are really important provisions that we have to fight to keep,” Bell said, adding that there are areas that the House bill “does right,” like automatic expungement of records.
“I’m really happy that we’re moving forward with this. And I think that the work that was done to get the details of this right is important and it’s going to pay dividends when we actually make this into public policy,” he added.
In early March, Senate Majority Leader Michael J. McCaffrey and Miller announced Senate Bill 568, also known as the Cannabis Authorization, Regulation and Taxation Act, or CART Act. Two days later, McKee introduced a legalization proposal, known as Article 11, in his budget.
In April, as Cannabis Wire reported, a joint hearing was held to discuss both proposals, with a focus on differences and similarities. The governor proposed allowing localities to opt out of all cannabis license types by referendum, while under the Senate plan, they could only opt out of sales. And the governor did not propose home cultivation, while the Senate plan did. This allowance, Miller told Cannabis Wire, was modeled after Massachusetts.
For much of May, there was silence, until Representative Scott Slater introduced House Bill 6370, which is more focused on equity than the other two proposals. (Slater’s late father, Thomas C. Slater, was also a state Representative, and sponsored the bill that became the state’s medical cannabis law.) No action has been taken on that legislation.
Under the latest version of the Senate bill, a Cannabis Control Commission with five commissioners will be established, and an advisory board will be formed to make recommendations to the Commission.
The license types include cultivation, manufacture, and retail, as well as labs, but the Commission could establish new license types. There will be no new cannabis cultivation licenses issued until July 1, 2023, but the bill specifies that “this prohibition shall not apply to cannabis cultivators licensed on or before July 1, 2021,” which leaves the option open to existing medical cannabis cultivators.
Cannabis would be taxed at a total of 20%, including a 10% excise tax on sales, the state’s existing 7% sales tax, and a 3% local tax, the revenue of which would go toward the locality.
Revenue from cannabis licensing and penalties for violations would go into a “social equity assistance fund,” which will go toward, for example, “restorative justice, jail diversion, drug rehabilitation and education workforce development for jobs related to cannabis cultivation, transportation, distribution and sales, mentoring services for economically-disadvantaged persons in communities disproportionately impacted by high rates of arrest and incarceration for cannabis and direct financial assistance to economically disadvantaged persons to gain entry into lawful cannabis business.”