Recreational marijuana bill on fast track to passage after key GA committee approvals

LAWMAKERS ARE FAST-TRACKING plans to legalize and sell recreational marijuana, with legislative committees advancing identical pieces of legislation to the R.I. House and Senate floors on Wednesday. / AP FILE PHOTO/SETH WENIG

PROVIDENCE – Lawmakers are fast-tracking a proposal to legalize and sell recreational marijuana, with committees in both chambers of the R.I. General Assembly approving legislation on Wednesday.

The “yes” votes from the Senate Judiciary and House Finance committees came quickly and with little debate, hinting at what bill sponsors have described as a collaborative process that eliminates many of the stumbling blocks that have stymied past attempts.

Sen. Joshua Miller, D-Cranston, and Rep. Scott Slater, D-Providence, on Tuesday introduced a revised version of their proposal that they said reflected feedback from and collaboration with the state administration and community groups. The amended bill preserves the hallmarks of legalizing recreational cannabis and setting forth a plan to sell, tax and regulate retail pot shops.

The tweaks seek to assuage concerns by the governor’s administration over separation of powers violation while incorporating a push from social justice advocates to automatically expunge criminal records for civil or criminal marijuana possession charges.

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“We finally have the kind of cooperation that’s going to make this work,” Miller said speaking to the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday. 

The identical bills now move to the House and Senate floors, where lawmakers are expected to vote on the proposal next week. If approved and signed into law by Gov. Daniel J. McKee, who has also signaled his support, Rhode Islanders could be allowed to have and grow small amounts of marijuana for recreational use within a matter of weeks.

Retail sales would begin by Dec. 1, although the majority of the 33 initial retail pot shops will not be up and running by that time since licenses have only been approved for the nine medical marijuana stores, which will sell to recreational users under a hybrid model.

A three-member Cannabis Control Commission appointed by the governor will take charge of the rules, licensing and regulation of both recreational and medical marijuana, the latter of which is currently controlled by the R.I. Department of Business Regulation.

The bill leaves it up to the commission to decide how to award the remaining 24 licenses, which must be spread across six designated zones, with certain licenses reserved for co-op and social equity applicants. Miller and Slater both said they favored a merit-based approach, while McKee in his own legislation called for a lottery system.

An advisory panel of political representatives and industry experts will offer recommendations to the commission, while a governor-appointed administrator will head the state cannabis office, reporting directly to the commission.

Sales of recreational cannabis will be subject to 20% tax in a combination of state and local taxes. Exactly how much money this will bring in for the state is unclear; a prior study suggested $20 million in state tax revenue annually, but those numbers are outdated and likely higher now amid a growing marijuana market, Miller said Tuesday.

As tax revenue from sales starts flowing in, the ID and plant tag fees paid by medical marijuana patients and caregivers will be phased out. 

Cities and towns can opt out of hosting a retail seller in their municipality through an ordinance and ballet referendum, except for the three municipalities already hosting medical dispensaries. 

If approved, Rhode Island would be the 19th state to legalize recreational marijuana.

Nancy Lavin is a PBN staff writer. You may reach her at Lavin@PBN.com

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