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Jan 13, 2019 3:00 PM

Rhode Island Governor Proposes Legalizing Marijuana

Bowing to pressure from nearby states that are moving to legalize marijuana, Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo (D), who has long remained reluctant about the issue, says she will formally propose in her budget this week that the Ocean State end cannabis prohibition.

“Things have changed, mainly because all of our neighbors are moving forward,” she told the Providence Journal in an article published on Sunday. “We’re not an island, in fact. Like it or not, we’re going to be incurring public safety and public health expenses because it’s legal in Massachusetts… And I think it is time for us to put together our own regulatory and taxing framework.”

Newly inaugurated Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont (D) has said that legalizing marijuana in his state will be among his “priorities” for the new legislative session.

Unlike most other states that have moved to enact legalization, however, Raimondo wants Rhode Island to prohibit home cultivation of cannabis. She also wants to ban high potency forms of marijuana products, such as dabs. Servings of edibles could contain no more than 5 milligrams of THC under her plan.

Sen. Josh Miller (D), who has sponsored legalization bills that allow home cultivation for the past several legislative sessions, said that he’s reserving judgement on governor’s proposal pending its specific language, but that he is optimistic about enacting reform this year even if it means needing to amend the law later.

“I want to see details, obviously,” he told Marijuana Moment. “I’m inclined to get it done, finally, and work on fixing the broken parts.”

Rep. Scott Slater (D), a longtime champion of legalization legislation in the House, agreed that changes could be made by the time a bill gets to Raimondo’s desk for her signature.

“I need time to read it over [and I’m] glad we have a placeholder in the budget,” he said. “It is early in the process.”

Raimondo said that she spoke with several other governors about marijuana policy at a conference last month.

“It’s going to be the strongest regulatory framework in the country,” she argued.

“We have seen the pitfalls of home cultivation in other states when it comes to how it threatens public health and public safety,” Norman Birenbaum, the state’s top medical cannabis regulator and a key Raimondo advisor on the broader legalization plan, told the Journal. “How it promotes the illicit market. How it undercuts the regulated market, how it puts unsafe and untested and unregulated product out there for people. And how it also serves as cover for states that supposedly have adult use to be export states and export to the rest of the country. And we don’t think that we should have that mechanism here.”

Medical cannabis patients would still be allowed to grow their own medicine, he said.

Currently, Washington State is the only one of the ten legalized states that does not allow recreational marijuana consumers to grow their own product.

Birenbaum, who WPRI12 reported will give a “detailed briefing” on the specifics of his boss’s plan on Monday, suggested that the state’s three existing medical cannabis dispensaries would continue serving patients but would also likely add adult-use sales. About 20-40 additional retail outlets would be licensed as well, subject to municipal approval. Sales are expected to begin early next year.

Matthew Schweich, deputy director of the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), called Raimondo’s endorsement of legalization “a major breakthrough.”

“We commend Governor Raimondo and her administration for adopting a pragmatic approach to this public policy issue,” he told Marijuana Moment. “However, we still need to see the details of this proposal. Access for the state’s medical marijuana patients must be protected. Furthermore, it is important that the recreational marijuana market is not controlled by a small number of businesses. We look forward to working with the Raimondo administration and legislative leaders to ensure that Rhode Island adopts a fair and responsible legalization law.”

With regard to the governor’s position that home cultivation of cannabis should be banned, Schweich said that while MPP “may not agree with everything in the governor’s proposal…we don’t want to make the perfect the enemy of the good.”

“We want to see adults have the right to cultivate some number of marijuana plants at home, just as they have the right to brew their own beer, but the governor’s plan does not include that,” he said. “However, laws can always be amended, and if home grow is not in the initial legislation, we will push the General Assembly to adopt that at some point in the future. Disagreement on one provision of the law does not mean we should pass up an opportunity to make substantial progress.”

In recent weeks, Raimondo and Rhode Island legislative leaders have begun to talk openly about the fact that legalization in neighboring states is increasing pressure to act.

“Given my druthers, if I could make all of these decisions in a vacuum, I’ve been favoring a wait-and-see approach,” the governor said late last year. “However, Connecticut is going to do it. The new governor-elect has been crystal clear, this is a priority. It’s happening. Massachusetts is already doing it. We’re a tiny state in between these two other states.”

House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello (D) has raised similar concerns.

“I think we have to study it and then decide what we want to do as a state, but I am mindful that Massachusetts has legalized it. I believe Connecticut is going to legalize it,” he said. “I think we’re probably going to end up with more social costs without the revenues and that would probably be the worst situation of all.”

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), who endorsed legalizing marijuana last month, has also characterized his own shift as being precipitated by the looming fall of prohibition in nearby states, such as New Jersey.

In Rhode Island, Raimondo is expected to formally release details of her legalization plan in her proposed budget, which will be submitted to the legislature on Thursday, though she may also discuss the issue in her State of the State speech on Tuesday.

It remains to be seen if lawmakers will agree with all of the finer points of the governor’s proposal.

In a statement on Sunday reacting to Raimondo’s plan, Mattiello said he has “mixed feelings” about legalization and that lawmakers “will collectively assess the governor’s proposal and come up with a consensus pathway forward.”

Senate President Dominick Ruggerio said he will “continue to keep an open mind on legalization of recreational marijuana as the state looks into the regulatory and workforce challenges that come along with it” but that he also has “significant concerns, particularly with regard to workforce issues, enforcement around edibles, and impact on children.”

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