The Rhode Island Senate voted to legalize cannabis and regulate its sale on the first occasion that such a proposal had been put to lawmakers in the state.

Following the bill’s approval by the chamber’s Judiciary Committee the week before, Maine Senators passed the legislation in a 29 to 9 vote. The lead sponsors of the bill, Senate Majority Leader Michael McCaffrey (D) and the chair of the Health and Human Services Committee Joshua Miller (D), urged lawmakers to back the move ahead of the vote.

“It is a historic day, 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 said. “It is important that we act expeditiously to enact a regulatory framework,” he added, in reference to neighboring Connecticut’s move to legalize cannabis sales earlier on the day of the Rhode Island Senate vote.

Cannabis legalization is as much about reconciliation as it is revenue,” McCaffrey said in a press statement. “[P]olicies 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.”

The measure would allow adults 21 and older to buy and possess up to one ounce of marijuana and cultivate up to six plants at home for personal use. It would create a new regulatory body – the Cannabis Control Commission – to issue marijuana business licenses and ensure compliance with the industry’s rules. Under the bill, marijuana sales would be taxed at 10 percent in addition to Rhode Island’s flat seven percent sales tax. Local jurisdictions would have the option of imposing a further 3 percent tax on marijuana companies operating in their area.

The bill also contains provisions allowing expungement and sealing of criminal records for those with prior convictions for possessing up to two ounces of marijuana, which courts would be required to act on within 90 days.

McCaffrey and Miller’s marijuana legalization proposal is one of three introduced to Rhode Island’s legislature this past session. Gov. Dan McKee included marijuana legalization in his budget proposal to the legislature days after McCaffrey and Miller introduced their bill, while another was recently introduced to the House of Representatives by Rep. Scott Slater (D).

House Speaker Joseph Skerachi (D) has indicated, however, that legalizing cannabis is not a priority for the moment, and that any such legislation is unlikely to be considered until later in the year.

Senate President Dominick Ruggerio (D), on the other hand, is keen to get the measure over the line as quickly as possible.

“Under the status quo, with cannabis readily available, Rhode Island must address all the societal costs, but we have no regulatory framework and no associated revenue stream. The longer we wait to open a cannabis marketplace, the further behind we fall from a competitive standpoint,” he said. “I encourage our partners in government to continue to work with us to bring this needed legislation over the goal line.”

While Gov. McKee is supportive of legalizing and regulating cannabis, he said it’s “not like one of my highest priorities” to assembled reporters before the Senate vote before countering the idea that Rhode Island needs to move fast on the issue to keep up with neighboring states, like Massachusetts and Connecticut, where cannabis is either already legally sold or where legal sales are expected to start in the foreseeable future.

About the Author: Matt Brooks

Matt is a journalist from San Francisco who has specialized in marijuana policy for more than six years.

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