Cannabis Activists Hit Rhode Island for Big Legalization Push

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The tiny state of Rhode Island is on the verge of a massive breakthrough when it comes to cannabis decriminalization. Keep an eye on Little Rhody — this could be its year.


Rhode Island lawmakers recently heard testimony in support of H5555, a bill that — if passed in time — could see the Ocean State legalize cannabis and commence recreational sales before its northern neighbor Massachusetts.

The state House Judiciary Committee hosted a dynamic lineup Tuesday, with everyone from social justice activists to union heavy hitters coming out in support of the effort. The broad roster of supporters included the state’s ACLU Affiliate, a past president of the Rhode Island Medical Society, the director of the Rhode Island SEIU State Council, board president of Doctors for Cannabis Regulation (and distinguished fellow of the American Psychiatric Association), Dr. David Nathan.

On the labor side, a statement from Regulate Rhode Island announced major support from unions.

“The SEIU New England 1199 threw its support behind H5555 late last week, joining the Rhode Island Criminal Defense Lawyers and the state affiliates of the ACLU, the NAACP and the Sierra Club,” the statement said.

Regulate Rhode Island Director, Jared Moffat, is obviously thrilled with the ensemble they were able to put together for the statehouse. He thinks the state looks poised to make real progress this year: after unsuccessful bids in the past, the state is poised to be the first to legalize through the state house — and not the ballot box — if all goes to plan.

“Removing marijuana from the criminal market and regulating its production and sale would improve public health and safety,” Moffat said. “It would create good jobs, generate tax revenue and end an unjust prohibition policy that has disproportionately impacted minority communities. It is not surprising that this legislation enjoys such a broad spectrum of support.”

The bill would allow adults 21 and older to possess up to one ounce of marijuana and grow one mature marijuana plant in an enclosed, locked space. It would also establish the Office of Cannabis Coordination within the executive branch.

This new OCC would be charged with coordinating among state agencies to establish a tightly regulated system of licensed marijuana retail stores, cultivation facilities, processing facilities and testing facilities. The measure would also enact a 23 percent excise tax on retail marijuana sales in addition to the standard 7 percent sales tax.

In a report released in March, Regulate Rhode Island also said if cannabis sales were to be legalized rapidly in 2017, the state is positioned to make $161 million through 2020, and with additional steep sales tax in H5555, they could add another $48 million per year to that number.

We reached out to Rhode Island Patient Advocacy Coalition founder, Tom Angell, who spearheaded the state’s original medical efforts back in 2003 with the establishment of RIPAC: three years later in 2006, they got medical cannabis in the books.

“I’m hopeful that this will finally be the year that Rhode Island ends prohibition,” Angell said. “It makes perfect economic sense to try to beat Massachusetts to the market, and with the impressive coalition of diverse voices speaking out in favor of legalization, it will be hard for lawmakers to say no.”

After the hearing, Moffat shared that enthusiasm, and is also hopeful we’ll see a vote in both houses this year.

“The hearing went well,” he said. “We made a lot of strong arguments and had a lot of great advocates.” 

H5555 was filed by Providence Democrat Rep. Scott Slater. It has a companion bill in the state senate that was filed by Sen. Joshua Miller, S0420

Keep an eye on tiny Rhode Island to keep leading the way on the East Coast.

TELL US, is it better for legalization to come from the ballot box or the legislature?

Jimi Devine has been involved in cannabis reform since 2005 and has worked in the Berkeley cannabis industry since 2009 when he moved to California from Lynn, Massachusetts. Currently serving as Staff Writer here at Cannabis Now, you can also find his writings on cannabis products and policy in the San Francisco Chronicle, The Boston Globe, The Hill, The Chronicle of High Education, GreenState.com, Marijuana.com, 7x7 Magazine, and in Ed Rosenthal's most recent book This Bud's for You. Jimi has a BA in Journalism and Media Studies from Franklin Pierce University.

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