Rhode Island Becomes the 19th State to Legalize Marijuana

    The governor of Rhode Island signed a bill on May 25 to legalize marijuana, making it the 19th state to end prohibition.

    While it will be at least a few months until adult-use retail sales launch in the Ocean State, adults 21 and older can now legally possess up to 1 ounce of cannabis and grow up to six plants for personal use, only three of which can be mature.

    There were months of negotiations between lawmakers, advocates, stakeholders and the governor’s office before a revised version of the legislation was introduced earlier this month. But once the text was released, the identical companion bills in both chambers quickly advanced through committee and were approved on the floor on May 24.

    Gov. Dan McKee (D), a proponent of legalization who released his own reform plan as part of his budget proposal this year, signed the measure just one day after the legislature sent it to his desk.

    The governor said at the signing ceremony that getting this legislation enacted “took a great deal of effort—it certainly wasn’t a straight line. It took hundreds of hours of work, meetings, stakeholders sessions, negotiations and collaboration. And that’s how good legislation gets done.”

    “The bill I signed today into law ensures that legalization is equitable, controlled and safe,” he said. “Those were three things that were very important to all of us when we were negotiating this final agreement as Rhode Island begins this new chapter.”

    “After years of persistent advocacy, lawmakers have enacted a well-crafted law that will create new opportunities and begin the process of addressing decades of harm caused by prohibition.”

    Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos (D) and state Senate Majority Leader Michael McCaffrey (D) joined the governor at the signing ceremony, as did the two lead sponsors of the legalization legislation, Rep. Scott Slater (D) and Sen. Joshua Miller (D).

    “Knowing that cannabis prohibition has been a failed policy for decades, we’re glad that we got to this point so that we can have the bill signing,” McCaffrey said.

    Miller remarked that “it has been a long road” to legalize marijuana in the state, “but I couldn’t be happier with the result.”

    Slater said that he’s “proud of the product that we put forth in this in this legislation,” highlighting its social equity provisions.

    “I think it’s probably one of the best legalization bills” in the country, he said. “I’m a little biased.”

    The primary components of the now-enacted law are largely consistent with an earlier version of the bill as introduced and considered during earlier committee hearings in March.


    The Components of the New Law

    Here’s what the revised marijuana legalization law entails:

    Adults 21 and older will be able to purchase and possess up to 1 ounce of cannabis and grow up to six plants (only three of which can be mature) for personal use.

    Possession and cultivation are immediately permitted, assuming security requirements prescribed in the bill are met for adults who choose to grow their own plants, but the first retail locations won’t open until December 1, 2022 at earliest.

    The allowable possession limit for marijuana stored in a given household will be maxed out at 10 ounces.

    The state will automatically expunge prior marijuana possession convictions for amounts now made legal by July 1, 2024, but those who petition the court for relief will have their cases expedited.

    Regulatory responsibility will be shared by a new independent Cannabis Control Commission (CCC) and an administrative Cannabis Office. A new advisory board will also assist.

    The governor will be responsible for making appointments to the CCC.

    Adult-use marijuana sales will be subject to the state’s 7 percent sales tax, a 10 percent excise tax and a local 3 percent tax for municipalities that allow cannabis businesses to operate.

    For the initial rollout, a total of 33 marijuana retailers can be licensed. Twenty-four of those licenses can be new standalone adult-use retailers, divided up equally between six geographic zones of the state, and nine other hybrid licenses can be approved for existing medical cannabis dispensaries if they pay a $125,000 fee to add recreational sales.

    Of the 24 standalone retailers, 25 percent will need to go to social equity applicants and another 25 percent will be for worker-owned cooperatives.

    No single entity will be allowed to possess more than one business license, but people can invest in multiple companies.

    Approved hybrid licensees can start to grow and manufacture marijuana for adult consumers starting August 1, 2022.

    Possession of more than 1 ounce but up to 2 ounces for adults aged 18 to 20 will be decriminalized, with people facing a civil penalty without the threat of jail time.

    Part of the money collected from cannabis licensing fees will support a new “Social Equity Assistance Fund.”

    The fund will “provide assistance to applicants from communities disproportionately impacted by prohibition of cannabis,” according to an earlier summary.

    Equity business applicants will need to meet one of several criteria to qualify, including at least 51 percent ownership by people who have resided in a disproportionately impacted area for five of the past 10 years; 51 percent ownership by people who have faced arrests or convictions over charges that would qualify for expungements under the law; or having income that does not exceed 400 percent of the median income in a disproportionately impacted area for five of the past 10 years.

    A business that has at least 10 employees, with at least 51 percent residing in disproportionally impacted areas or who have been arrested or convicted for an expungable charge under the bill, will also qualify, as would being able to demonstrate significant experience in types of businesses that promote economic development.

    There will be a two-year moratorium on licensing additional cultivators beyond those that are already operating for the medical cannabis market.

    Regulators will also be responsible for setting limits on “cannabis product serving sizes, doses, and potency, including, but not limited to, regulations which provide requirements for reasonable tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) potency limits for each type of cannabis product sold by a licensee and reasonable potency or dosing limits for cannabis concentrates and edible products, that shall apply for adult use cannabis only.”

    Local municipalities can opt out of allowing marijuana retailers with voter approval via ballot referendums, but not if they currently have medical cannabis compassion centers operating in their jurisdiction. They could also set their own rules on public consumption through ordinances.

    The bill also removes fees for medical cannabis plant tags and patient IDs once adult-use sales start.


    “There is more work to be done to ensure that the full promise and potential of this legislation is achieved.”

    “After years of persistent advocacy by organizations and supporters across the state, lawmakers have enacted a well crafted cannabis legalization law that will create new opportunities for Rhode Islanders and begin the process of addressing decades of harm caused by prohibition,” Jared Moffat, state campaigns manager for the Marijuana Policy Project, said.

    “There is more work to be done to ensure that the full promise and potential of this legislation is achieved,” he continuend, “but today is a day for us to celebrate and recognize that the hard work of organizing and educating eventually pays off.”

    Miller, who sponsored an earlier legalization proposal that was approved in the Senate last year, previously said that lawmakers “made our best attempt” to get the provisions right, and he stressed his openness to feedback from colleagues and stakeholders.



    Photograph by Taber Andrew Bain via Flickr/Creative Commons 2.0

    This story was originally published by Marijuana Moment, which tracks the politics and policy of cannabis and drugs. Follow Marijuana Moment on Twitter and Facebook, and sign up for its newsletter.

    • Kyle is Marijuana Moment‘s Los Angeles-based associate editor. His work has also appeared in High Times, VICE and attn.

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