Top R.I. legislators confident recreational marijuana will pass ‘overwhelmingly’ in upcoming session

RHODE ISLAND SENATE President Dominick J. Ruggerio, left, and House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi talk at the Statehouse earlier this month. / PBN PHOTO/ELIZABETH GRAHAM
RHODE ISLAND SENATE President Dominick J. Ruggerio, left, and House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi talk at the Statehouse earlier this month. / PBN PHOTO/ELIZABETH GRAHAM

PROVIDENCE – After months of negotiations, House and Senate leaders say they’re nearly ready to introduce legislation to legalize recreational marijuana that will have widespread support in both chambers.

“We’re very close to being able to, in the month of January, release the framework of a bill that will begin a robust public hearing and vetting process,” said House Speaker K. Joseph Sherkarchi, D-Warwick.

In a separate interview on Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Michael J. McCaffrey, D-Warwick, said that the goal is to get the marijuana legislation introduced early in the 2022 session, voted on in both chambers and passed by February.

“Once it goes through the hearing process, I think that it will pass in both chambers overwhelmingly,” he said.

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In the last session, the Senate had approved a measure to legalize recreational cannabis, but it died in the House. Gov. Daniel J. McKee had made his own proposal as part of his state budget plan last March, but it did not survive the budget process.

State officials have expressed a desire to act quickly because marijuana retail shops have already been set up across the border in Massachusetts, meaning Rhode Island is losing out on potential state revenue from taxing recreational marijuana sales. Connecticut also has recently legalized recreational marijuana.

There had been talk of a special session being held in the fall, but that never came to fruition.

Legislative leadership and the McKee administration spent the summer and fall hashing out sticking points to legalization that included social equity, expungement of criminal records and the method of regulating the industry.

“The Senate wants to have a separate independent commission to regulate the cannabis industry,” McCaffery said Tuesday. “We have been working with the House on some language that hopefully everyone can live with.”

House and Senate leaders said in separate interviews that marijuana was but one of numerous priorities for the upcoming legislative session that starts on Jan. 4.

Shekarchi said allocating the $1.1 billion in American Rescue Plan Act aid will be the House’s primary focus as it will be spent through the budget process.

“Our budget is usually $12 billion [to] $14 billion, so we are used to handling big sums of money as we go through the process, and ARPA will be no different,” he said. “We want to make long-term, sustainable investments that benefit Rhode Island.”

Affordable housing will also garner a lot of attention. Shekarchi said that will include deployment of a housing czar and land use and study commissions to find ways to create more housing stock in the state.

“That could mean converting factories, or abandoned factories, or underutilized schools,” he said. “We need to attack this problem from a lot of different angles.”

The solution could also involve leveraging the ARPA funding, said Shekarchi. “There’s going to be a lot of legislation that emanates from our two commissions. Housing is a very important issue.”

Shekarchi said that small businesses are struggling with two big problems that need to be addressed: the labor shortage and supply chain issues. The Speaker said the legislature is looking at grant funding through R.I. Commerce Corp., and relaxing regulations to aid the state’s businesses.

“I am a lot concerned about … this new variant of COVID, this omicron,” he said. “It’s not only going to have a devastating impact on people, but also on the small-business community, especially with the labor and staffing shortage.”

Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio, D-North Providence, shared the same concerns. Ruggerio said the Senate’s priorities are universal pre-kindergarten, legalization of marijuana, and infrastructure-based projects.

The state is receiving $2.5 billion in federal infrastructure funds that President Joe Biden signed into law in November.

Ruggerio said the Senate is looking to use about $125 million in federal COVID-19 relief funding to accelerate making pre-kindergarten available to all the state’s eligible children in about a five-year period.

“I think that’s going to be important for three and four-year-olds,” said Ruggerio. “That does two things. It gives them a jump on their education and will help working families.”

Ruggerio said that under the existing program it could take about 28 years to reach the universal pre-K level statewide. “We’re looking to move it along a lot quicker than we originally anticipated,” he said. “We know five years is pretty ambitious.”

Ruggerio said that a priority in allocating the $1.1 billion in ARPA dollars is infrastructure, and more specifically, roads and bridges, and upgrading the state’s aging sewer and water systems.

“It’s important to get rid of the lead pipes and have potable drinking water,” he said. “We don’t want to have a situation like they have in Michigan, where they have to use bottled water to do everything from drinking to bathing.”

Ruggerio said the state should look at “the big picture” in spending the balance of the ARPA funds by its five-year expenditure deadline. “I don’t think we should spend it all in one shot,” he said. “Our economy is not going to rebound overnight, so I think we should hold some of that money back.”

Ruggerio said the legislature was looking to issue a $250 million bond proposal for new high school renovations and construction. He also said that over $200 million in funding was appropriated for housing in 2021, some of which went toward addressing rent relief.

“I think we have enough money appropriated for housing at this time,” he said. “We’ll see what we need going forward.”

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