Rhode Island Lawmakers Approve Weed Legalization Bill

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The Rhode Island General Assembly approved legislation to legalize recreational pot on Tuesday, culminating years of work by lawmakers and activists to reform the state’s cannabis policy. Democratic Governor Dan McKee is expected to sign the legislation Wednesday afternoon, according to media reports, making Rhode Island the 19th state in the nation to legalize cannabis for use by adults.

After lawmakers passed the bill, Senate Majority Leader Michael McCaffrey thanked his colleagues for their work on the issue, which has resulted in a recreational pot legalization bill to be introduced in the General Assembly every year since 2011.

“This is a truly momentous day for Rhode Island. I’m deeply grateful to Senator Miller for his years of hard work and leadership on this issue, and I’m incredibly proud to have been part of reaching this point,” McCaffrey said, as quoted by the Providence Journal. “Ending cannabis prohibition helps us right past wrongs while creating new opportunities for all Rhode Islanders. This is the right move, at the right time, for our state.”

The legislation legalizes possession of up to one ounce of cannabis by adults aged 21 and older. Possession by adults of up to 10 ounces is permitted in a private home, as is the cultivation of up to three mature and three immature cannabis plants.

The bill also includes provisions to expunge past convictions for cannabis possession offenses including civil violations, misdemeanors, and felonies. According to an analysis of the impact of the legislation by representatives of the state court system, as many as 27,000 cases where weed possession was the only charge are eligible for expungement. Court spokesman Craig Berke said last week that “thousands more” cases in which cannabis possession was one of multiple charges could also qualify for relief. The bill gives the state’s courts until July 1, 2024, to automatically expunge the records of all who are eligible.

Recreational Pot Sales Begin December 1

Commercial cannabis cultivation and commerce are also legalized by the legislation, with regulated sales of recreational weed slated to begin on December 1. An earlier version of the measure called for adult-use pot sales to begin on October 1. House Finance Committee Chairman Marvin Abney said the final bill was the product of “months of intense negotiation and collaboration with numerous stakeholders.”

“This bill represents a solid foundation for the regulation of the cannabis industry within our state,” said Abney. “This is a good, strong, fair and equitable bill.”

The legalization bill faced some opposition in both the Senate and House of Representatives, including fears of impaired driving on the state’s roadways. Representative David Place offered an amendment to set cannabis taxes to mirror the state’s 7% tax rate, but the proposal was not approved.

“The primary benefit of legalization, to my mind, is the elimination of the black market and all the corresponding costs that go along with the black market,” Place said. “And we don’t do that with this bill.”

Opposition from representatives of Rhode Island businesses centered on fears that workers would be impaired on the job. Jared Moffat, states campaigns manager for the advocacy group the Marijuana Policy Project, said that employers are protected by the legislation.

“Nothing in the legalization bill requires employees to tolerate marijuana use or impairment on the job or in the workplace,” Moffat said. “In other words, if you catch an employee using marijuana, employers don’t have to accommodate that behavior, and there are typically obvious signs that someone is impaired by marijuana.”

Additionally, employers whose employees perform work that is “hazardous, dangerous or essential to public welfare and safety” may prohibit workers from using cannabis within 24 hours of their shift. Moffat added that employees who use cannabis on personal time should not be discriminated against, similar to protections that prevent an employee from being “disciplined or fired because they enjoy a glass of wine or a cocktail on the weekend.”

Cannabis possession will become legal as soon as McKee signs the legislation on Wednesday afternoon. Sales of recreational pot are expected to begin on December 1 at the state’s three existing medical cannabis dispensaries. The bill also authorizes up to six regional recreational cannabis retailers.

“Currently, only the three original licensed compassion centers are up and running, but the sponsors believe it’s possible that at least some of the six more that were recently approved will be open by Dec. 1, and that it is realistic to expect the hybrid licenses that will allow them to sell to recreational users will be approved by then,” reads a statement from the General Assembly.

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