Room for compromise on legal weed proposals

Posted 5/12/21

If you were to go back in time even just five years ago and say that, in 2021, Rhode Island would be unable to pass recreational marijuana legislation into law because there were too many different ideas in favor of the concept (and how to do it

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Room for compromise on legal weed proposals


If you were to go back in time even just five years ago and say that, in 2021, Rhode Island would be unable to pass recreational marijuana legislation into law because there were too many different ideas in favor of the concept (and how to do it properly), you’d probably get some interesting responses from your peers.

And yet, here we are. Both Governor Dan McKee and the Rhode Island Senate (through a bill co-sponsored by Warwick’s Michael McCaffrey and Cranston’s Joshua Miller) have put forth proposals outlining how they believe the drug should be legalized, controlled and monetized, resulting in a stalemate as advocates pick apart the pros and cons of each approach. We believe there is middle ground to be found here that will result in the best possible outcome for Rhode Island.

Quite a lot has changed in Little Rhody since Massachusetts took the plunge into recreational marijuana legalization in 2016 – though its industry has only been truly operational since 2018. Political appetite for legal weed has only grown more voracious as the matter has become overwhelmingly popular with the general public and our northern neighbor has reaped millions in tax revenue. Quite simply, it has become more politically damaging in Rhode Island to outright oppose marijuana legalization than to be in favor of it.

This is not to say that the legalization of marijuana is an issue that should be taken lightly. However, according to a recent comprehensive study of all states with legal recreational marijuana from the National Institutes of Health, many of the fears that anti-legalization advocates have warned about since Colorado first legalized in 2012 have appeared to be largely overstated and unrealized.

It has been observed (predictably) that all states with legalized recreational marijuana have seen significant increases in the number of adult residents reporting marijuana use. However, despite this increased access, recorded admittances to behavioral health clinics for marijuana abuse in these states has been largely flat. Similarly, the rate of use among minors has not been observed as being significantly higher than pre-legalization levels (in fact, use has dropped in some states due to more enforcement efforts to prevent them from obtaining it). The study also found that, while vehicular crashes may have increased slightly in some legal marijuana states, there is no reasonable link to legal marijuana access being responsible.

All of these facts in mind – combined with the anecdotal observation that Massachusetts has not descended into a dystopian, drug-addled hellscape ala “Reefer Madness” – leads us to levy our continued support for the legalization of recreational marijuana in Rhode Island. The few emotional arguments heard against it can hardly be taken seriously when data does not support those concerns, and much deadlier alcohol continues to be available on every other street corner.

As for the two proposals now before the Rhode Island legislature in the form of Governor McKee’s budget and the separate Senate bill, there is ample room for compromise here – possibly coming in the form of a House bill that takes the best practices of each into consideration.

Governor McKee’s proposal would establish a lottery to grant licenses to 75 total dispensaries over the next three years, whereas the Senate bill would establish a Cannabis Control Commission mirroring Massachusetts that would oversee licensing and enforcement of up to 150 new recreational businesses. We see no reason why the establishment of a Cannabis Control Commission and a lottery process are mutually exclusive. Perhaps a limited number of initial recreational licenses are thoroughly vetted and chosen by the commission to establish best practices for the process, and then a lottery can be utilized to assign all subsequent licenses to eligible businesses in a fair and transparent way.

The ultimate winning approach should incorporate pieces of each proposal when it comes to social equity issues. Governor McKee’s bill does not include a provision that would expunge existing misdemeanor marijuana possession offenses, but it should, up to the amount that is ultimately legalized. Minority members of our society have been penalized at an exorbitantly higher rate than white citizens for marijuana possession, an injustice that must be corrected once the drug is legalized.

However, McKee’s approach would require that 20 percent of retail licenses (and 50 percent of ancillary businesses in the sector, such as marijuana processors and transporters) go to minority-owned businesses – language sorely missing from the Senate proposal. This would enable those inordinately affected negatively from prohibition in the past to reap benefits of its legalization, as it should.

All other details of the two proposals are largely negotiable. Cities and towns should retain the right to deny access to retail marijuana in their communities if their elected officials find that is the will of the community. However, it should not require a special election in each community to do so (as McKee’s proposal suggests), as this would unnecessarily burden cities and towns.

And, perhaps most importantly, both sides agree that local, state and additional excise taxes should be applied to all recreational sales. This revenue should be more specifically earmarked for use in ways that promote good public health outcomes – such as educational outreach to prevent marijuana abuse, underaged use, and train additional drug recognition expert (DREs) to identify those driving while high.

There is no reason that marijuana legalization should have to wait another year. There is finally a political will to accomplish what the public consensus has requested for some time. Work out the differences and get this industry rolling.


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