The Rhode Island statehouse in Providence. Credit: Mike Fourcher / Grown In

Rhode Island took a major step forward toward legalization when a negotiating group of state legislators announced on Mar. 1 that they had reached a compromise on legalizing adult cannabis.

“The time for Rhode Island to move forward with cannabis legalization is now. This historic shift in public policy will create a vibrant new marketplace in our state and end the failed practice of prohibition, which has caused such harm to so many in our communities,” said state Sen. Joshua Miller in a statement with Rep. Scott Slater following the release of matching Senate and House bills.

The bill would make Rhode Island the fifth state in New England to legalize adult use cannabis, and it would also set aside licenses reserved for social equity candidates.

“Rhode Island has taken a historic step toward becoming the first state to reserve licenses for worker-owned cooperatives,” said Miguel Martínez Youngs, Organizing Director of Reclaim RI, in a released statement. “Co-ops and social equity ensure that the benefits of legalization go to those who suffered the most under prohibition and not just to Big Weed. But without automatic expungement, we will still be punishing those people for something that isn’t even a crime anymore. We look forward to working with legislators to amend the bill.”

The bill allows for a total of 33 new retail licenses. Of those, 24 would be for new entrants into the market, while nine will be reserved for the three existing medical dispensaries and the five new ones that are supposed to be in operation by the end of summer after winning last fall’s lottery license process. There was supposed to be a sixth license winner, but lawsuits delayed that final selection and it remains in limbo.

The nine adult use/medical hybrid licenses will cost $125,000 with fees going to start the state’s new social equity fund. Other licenses will face an initial $30,000 fee.

The state currently has over 50 licensed medical cannabis cultivators who are allowed to sell to dispensaries only. They will be allowed to apply for commercial licenses. There will be a two-year moratorium on new cultivator licenses starting once the regulations are finalized. This is intended to allow the state to conduct an impact study on the existing cultivation market.

Adult use cannabis would be taxed at a total of 20%, with 10% state excise, 7% sales tax and a 3% local excise tax. Medical cannabis currently has a 7% sales tax. 

Regulation, licensing, and enforcement would be handled by a three-member Cannabis Control Commission. Control of the state’s medical cannabis program would transfer to the commission within six months of the issuance of final rules and regulations.

The bill would also establish a Cannabis Advisory Board, which would advise the CCC.

The sale of 1 oz. of flower or less would become legal on Oct. 1, 2022, with individuals allowed to possess up to 10 oz. of flower in their home, as soon as the bill is signed into law.

Expungement for cannabis-related possession convictions would be expunged, by written request, as long as the amount that was possessed has now been decriminalized.

A social equity fund would be established, funded through licensing fees and penalties. At least one co-op license and one social equity license will be reserved in each of Rhode Island’s 6 regulatory zones.

In general, activists expressed enthusiasm about the bill, but there is concern that it would not go far enough to correct the negative impacts of the War on Drugs. Specifically, the bill lacks an automatic expungement element.

“Without an automatic record clearance process, Rhode Island will continue to fail the very communities who bear the brunt of the war on drugs to this day,” said Gracie Burger, State Policy Director, Last Prisoner Project, in a released statement. “To begin to right the wrongs of prohibition and make legalization accessible to all residents, the onus must be on the government to remove these erroneous convictions from peoples’ records, so that they may begin to rebuild their lives.”

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Zack cut his journalistic teeth covering high school sports in the south before spending a decade covering local government, politics and the courts in the Boston, Massachusetts area. He's previously written...