With three different, competing bills for legal adult-use cannabis coming from Rhode Island’s Governor, House, and Senate, the question is not “if?” but rather “how?”
Yes We Cannabis Rhode Island (YWCRI) is on the front line of this fight working for equitable regulation and expungement of drug-related criminal records.
Rhode Island’s Senate passed a legalization bill last summer in time for the end of the legislative session. Barring a special fall session, the House is expected to take up the issue with their own version of the bill in January, all while Governor Daniel McKee has proposed a third version of the bill.
Each bill has different limits, such as the maximum number of retail shop licenses or to what extent past drug convictions might be erased
“As a coalition, we want all past criminal convictions related to marijuana conviction automatically expunged,” said Maggie Kain of YWCRI. “We also want to make sure that the people who have been impacted are able to participate in this industry.”
Kain, who unsuccessfully ran for Democratic nomination for a State Senate seat in 2020, has frequently acted as a spokesperson for the group, which she described as an entirely volunteer effort.
The coalition includes members from the Formerly Incarcerated Union, Regulate RI, Reclaim and Doctors for Cannabis Regulation, Rhode Island Political Cooperative and Marijuana Policy Project.
“We want to address the harms that have been done with the drug war,” said Kain.
The American Civil Liberties Union found that Black people were 3.3 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people, according to a 2018 study. This was the case despite Rhode Island having decriminalized marijuana in 2012.
The current battle in Rhode Island is not whether or not cannabis will be completely legalized, but what legalization will look like, according to Kain.
“People have accepted the idea of legalized cannabis,” she said. “The overall population approves of it.”
The coalition also would like the state to agree to reserve a certain number of licenses for communities that have been struck hardest by the War on Drugs, and to specifically direct some of the revenue to program those same communities.
Revenue that is currently generated by the medical marijuana market goes into the state’s general fund.
Supporters are also hoping to protect an emerging commercial market from the pitfalls the medical industry experienced a decade prior, according to Kain.
“The problem is that the way they set up the medical program, it created a monopoly in the industry,” she said. “It’s $500,000 a year for a license.”
The state has only licensed three companies to dispense medical marijuana. Considering the small size of the state, compared to its neighbors, and the high financial barrier, Kain is concerned that an adult-use market could also be similarly monopolized.
“We’ve seen what can happen when you just have a terrible plan. It’s hard to put the genie back in the bottle,” she said.
Those concerns aside, Kain said that she was confident that YWCRI will be able to at least get some of their demands into a final bill.
“At this point, we are all crossing our fingers to even get this bill to the floor. We have bated breath to see if this is really going to happen,” she said. “I do think that we have enough allies and a big enough voice that we can really put some pressure on legislators on this bill.”