Rhode Island State Rep. Scott Slater addresses the House in favor of legalization on Tuesday, May 24, 2022.

Cannabis is officially legal for adult use in Rhode Island, after Governor Dan McKee signed the long-deliberated Rhode Island Cannabis Act into law on Wednesday, May 25. The new law allows personal possession of cannabis for all adults, starts the clock on automatic expungement of past cannabis-related drug convictions, and will create New England’s fifth adult use cannabis retail market. 

“This has been decades of coordinated advocacy efforts that has finally come to fruition,” said a spokesperson on behalf of Yes We Cannabis RI in a text message. “Our Coalition members are overwhelmed with emotion, tears of joy and excitement. We know now the next point of business is the implementation and we will continue our work and advocacy, now –  Let’s groooow!”

Rhode Island first legalized medical cannabis in 2006. Over the last few years the state legislature and governor have deliberated over how legalization should take place in the state.   

“This bill successfully incorporates our priorities of making sure cannabis legalization is equitable, controlled, and safe,” said Gov. McKee. “In addition, it creates a process for the automatic expungement of past cannabis convictions. My administration’s original legalization plan also included such a provision and I am thrilled that the Assembly recognized the importance of this particular issue. The end result is a win for our state both socially and economically.”

The state will automatically expunge all civil and criminal cannabis convictions by July 1, 2024, as per the new law. Adult use sales can begin as early as Dec. 1 and it eliminates medical cannabis fees, including those for permits or plant tags.

The new law allows personal possession of up to 1 oz. of flower in public and 10 oz. in one home. The law also permits up to three mature plants and three immature cannabis plants per household. The law also eliminates fees associated with the medical cannabis program, such as the cost of new ID cards or the cost of individual tags to track any plants.

Last week, House and Senate committees sent identical versions of the legalization bill to their respective floors. The governor’s signature came just one day after both the House and Senate sent the bill to his desk. 

“One hundred years ago Rhode Island was one of two states not to ratify the Volstead act, the 18th Amendment, that prohibited the sale of alcoholic beverages,” said Sen. Joshua Miller when presenting the legalization bill to the Senate on Tuesday. “We may have anticipated that prohibition could do more harm than good, especially to minorities including Italians, the Irish, and other recently arrived immigrants. Although it may be too late for Rhode Island to be a pioneer in cannabis, it is not too late to do what is right and begin to repair damage caused by prohibition of cannabis.” 

The State Senate passed the legalization bill, 32-6, shortly before the House did the same, 55-16.

“I support this legislation, but my primary concern comes from taxation,” said State Rep. David Place (R) just before voting in favor of the bill on May 24. “I have a friend I worked with in a machine shop who lives in Massachusetts. He’s a consummate pot smoker. He doesn’t go to a dispensary, he still buys it on the black market.” 

Efforts to bring a legalization bill to the floor last year, failed before the end of the 2021 legislative sessions. At the time, the House, Senate, and Governor were at odds about the agency that would ultimately oversee the state’s cannabis industry.

Earlier this year, the state’s legislative and executive branches resumed negotiations and settled on the creation of a Cannabis Control Commission with three commissioners in charge. The governor will appoint all three members, although one of them will be selected from a list of three that the State House submits to the governor. The Senate will then confirm all three picks.

The state currently has three operating medical cannabis dispensaries with six more expected to come online before the end of the year. Those nine medical operators will have the option of applying for hybrid medical/adult use licenses for a $125,000 fee. The fees will go into a social equity fund to support prospective adult use cannabis operators. 

Although most of the state’s municipalities will have the option of voting to opt out of allowing legal adult use sales, the cities and towns where medical dispensaries already exist, or will in a few months, are not able to opt out. Towns with cultivation or laboratories will be able to opt out, though existing sites will be grandfathered.

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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...