Rhode Island’s Senate Majority Leader believes a forthcoming marijuana legalization bill will be convincingly approved by both chambers when lawmakers vote on it in the next legislative session.
Lawmakers have been locked in discussions for months over how to combine competing legalization proposals from the House, Senate and governor’s office into one bill that’s acceptable to all.
House Speaker Joseph Sherkarchi (D) said these negotiations have gone well and expects the resulting draft legislation to be introduced in January. The bill’s introduction “will begin a robust public hearing and vetting process,” according to Sherkarchi, but Senate Majority Leader Michael McCaffrey (D) is keen to get the measure over the line as quickly as possible, potentially in February.
“Once it goes through the hearing process, I think that it will pass in both chambers overwhelmingly,” he said. “We have been working with the House on some language that hopefully everyone can live with.”
The main point of contention between the House and Senate proposals concerns who would be responsible for regulating Rhode Island’s legal marijuana industry.
The House wants the Department of Business Regulation (DBR) to take charge, while the Senate would prefer a separate independent commission to oversee the industry.
For Shekarchi, a compromise on the matter is possible and suggested that there could be “some combination thereof or some hybrid version” of the House and Senate proposals.
Sen. Josh Miller (D), sponsor of a marijuana legalization bill passed by Rhode Island’s Senate last year, highlighted regulatory responsibility as the biggest obstacle to approving legal cannabis sales.
The question of how many cannabis business licenses to issue was another point where the House and Senate disagreed. Miller’s legislation capped the number of marijuana dispensaries at 150, but Gov. Dan McKee only wanted 25 while Rep. Scott Slater’s (D) House version proposed just 15. This has now reportedly been resolved but the final number of cannabis business licenses has not yet been announced.
It’s also still unclear to what extent the compromise bill will appeal to progressive marijuana reform advocates who’ve championed legislation that prioritizes social equity in the form of expungements for prior cannabis offenses and support for marginalized individuals and groups to meaningfully participate in the legal marijuana industry.
“We can’t reverse the harm of the war on drugs, but we can start to repair it by passing automatic expungement and waiving all related fines, fees and court debt,” said Rep. Karen Alzate (D), chair of the Rhode Island Legislative Black and Latino Caucus. “This bold legalization plan offers us the chance to turn a new leaf for the Ocean State, and it’s time we take it.”
Senate President Dominick Ruggerio (D), for his part, thinks the Senate version has “very strong social justice provisions” with the approach towards expungements “as close to automatic as practical.”
Gov. McKee wanted to legalize marijuana through his budget proposal to the legislature last year but has also said reforming Rhode Island’s cannabis laws is “not like one of my highest priorities.”
Former-Gov. Gina Raimondo also wanted to legalize cannabis through her state budget but, unlike McKee, she envisioned the state operating dispensaries and cultivation sites rather than private enterprises.
While Connecticut and Massachusetts have both moved to legalize recreational cannabis recently, McKee said Rhode Island is not in a race with its neighbors and lawmakers should instead focus on getting the negotiations between the House and Senate right.