Rhode Island: Gov. Raimondo’s Proposed Marijuana Legalization Budget Plan

On January 17, 2019, Gov. Gina Raimondo unveiled a budget proposal for 2020 that would legalize recreational marijuana in Rhode Island “with reluctance,” as she told The Providence Journal. “We’re not an island, in fact. Like it or not, we’re going to be incurring public safety and public health expenses because it’s legal in Massachusetts… And I think it is time for us to put together our own regulatory and taxing framework,” she said.

It’s a defensive move: If surrounding states — not even far enough away for a Rhode Island driver to pack a lunch — rake in Rhode Island money, the governor foresees welcoming home trouble with nothing to show for it. So the Adult Use of Marijuana Act aims to increase sales, licensing and tax revenues without actually accepting this plant that’s been used to foster pleasure, inspiration and insight for thousands of years.

Some of the bill’s proposed rules may send some Rhode Islanders to Attleboro and Fall River anyway, for higher potency products. Other parts of the proposal will no longer permit growing marijuana plants by and for medical marijuana patients who can’t or won’t demonstrate hardship, instead driving them toward retail sales at compassion centers. NORML RI thinks sick people, some often unable to work consistently, are hardly an appropriate market to tap for state revenue.

The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (established in 1970) welcomes and celebrates that by 2020 marijuana will finally be legal in Rhode Island for all adults. The Rhode Island chapter would like to highlight some portions of the proposal that we feel could sensibly be modified in the upcoming hearings in order to produce a better bill. We hope to influence its amendments and final outcome, and look forward to refinements in future years based on the state’s experience with legalization going forward.

Only near-beer? 

Rhode Island proposes to be the first state in the U.S.  to limit the potency of marijuana products sold for adult use. The governor recommends creating the Office of Cannabis Regulation (OCR) within The Department of Business Regulation which will have the authority to set those limits.

The bill would limit the potency of any product to 50% THC. In response to a query about vaping, Norman Birenbaum of the DBR wrote, “The proposal does allow for DBR to approve a concentrate which is above 50% THC to allow for pre-filled vape cartridges or vape pens which are capable of delivering vapor in a consistent manner.” Many users prefer vaporized oils or tinctures to smoking, and with education on options and dosage they can make appropriate choices. Massachusetts has no limit on marijuana-product potency.

The proposal would limit the potency of any product to 50% THC. (This is rather like the state permitting the sale of beer but not bourbon.) In response to a query about vaping, Norman Birenbaum of the DBR emailed, “The proposal does allow for DBR to approve a concentrate which is above 50% THC to allow for pre-filled vape cartridges or vape pens which are capable of delivering vapor in a consistent manner.” Adults can make proper choices when educated on usage and dosage, and some high-potency products (“shatter,” tinctures, etc.) are preferred for their clean delivery methods. Massachusetts has no limit on marijuana-product potency.

The proposal would limit THC content for adults to potencies that might not affect a child who encountered and consumed it: Sales of edibles such as gummies, brownies and cookies infused with THC would be restricted to 5-milligram portions. An adult might have to consume a lot of baked goods to realize an effect. (Workaround: A chocolate bar that comprises 20 five-mg. squares would conform to the 100-mg.-per-package limit.)

Inadvertently, the state may be forcing Rhode Islanders to smoke marijuana and eat lots of infused sweets by prohibiting more efficient and perhaps healthier ways to ingest effective amounts of THC.

NORML RI agrees with the prohibition on marijuana products in the shape of “an animal, human, vehicle, or other shape or form which may be attractive to children” and the requirements that all marijuana products be tested through state-licensed labs, and edibles infused with cannabis should be subject to current food-safety regulations.

NORML RI believes high-potency concentrates, edibles and oils should be available to those who choose it. We hope that a variety of ways to consume responsibly become  legal beyond traditionally lighting up and smoking dried marijuana leaves.

Thou shalt not grow.

Under the current R.I. medical marijuana law, patients and caregivers may cultivate 12 mature plants and 12 seedlings.  The state’s new proposal would eliminate home growing altogether, except to those patients who apply for an as-yet-undefined hardship, and require them to appoint a caregiver who would only cultivate marijuana for that one patient’s use “unless additional patients are family members or demonstrate need for a caretaker, up to five patients.” Cooperatives and gifting would be banned in the medical marijuana program.

NORML RI does not believe legalization should come at the cost of patients’ rights. The budget’s stated goal that these restrictions will “increase retail sales” blurs the necessary distinction between medicinal and recreational marijuana applications and regulation. Boosting retail sales must not trump making medicine available at reasonable cost to patients.

The budget proposal would not permit recreational users to grow marijuana plants at all. NORML RI recommends permitting home gardeners, patients and caregivers to grow a reasonable number of plants for personal use. Alaska, California, Colorado, a newly proposed law in Connecticut, the District of Columbia, Maine, Massachusetts and Vermont permit adults over 21 to grow between 4 and 12 plants — commonly 6 — for recreational use.

Big sin taxes?

The governor’s proposal would create a “weight-based excise tax on marijuana cultivation,” an additional retail excise tax of 10%, and also applies sales tax to marijuana transactions (totaling an approximate overall tax rate of 20%).

NORML RI believes the state should be wary of over-taxing the market before it gets off the ground. As the markets settle in nearby states and competition takes hold, Rhode Island may find its top-heavy taxes price the state out of more competitive nearby markets.

Heavily taxed… rope.

The Governor proposes an 80% wholesale tax on non-psychoactive cannabidiol (CBD) products made from hemp —  cannabis sativa which contains no more than 0.3% THC —  and aims to license its dealers and distributors. NORML RI does not believe hemp, in any form, should be taxed like psychoactive marijuana products. Hemp is now a federally legal agricultural commodity; it has never in its 10,000 years of use gotten anyone high, and should be treated as such.

Traffic jams!

The Governor’s proposal would initially license six new retail-only “compassion centers.”  NORML RI recommends licensing additional responsible marijuana retailers at the discretion of each municipality. (The proposal already gives municipalities control of where marijuana businesses can be located or to prohibit all marijuana business through referendum.)

Massachusetts had a bottleneck on required lab testing which slowed the launch of retailers. We hope Rhode Island smoothes that wrinkle. We also support rethinking that portion of the bill that limits purchases to an ounce a day per person — no stocking up, as with any other legal commodity — which may sometimes swell the lines unnecessarily.

Corporate weed

In June, 2018, the Rhode Island General Assembly approved a state budget that includes a proposal to increase the fee medical marijuana dispensaries pay annually for licenses from $5,000 to $250,000. The wording of the proposed bill suggests it will reduce these fees after its passage to $50,000 when compassion centers renew their licensing.

High fees, and the ability of any one provider to grow, manufacturer and distribute its marijuana (called vertical integration)  enshrines what New York City mayor Bill De Blasio calls “the corporatization of marijuana” rather than its legalization (he would not give licensing preferences to existing medical marijuana businesses, as Rhode Island would, and would encourage both co-ops and home delivery.)  NORML RI agrees with his statement that cities  should “build their own local cannabis industry, led by small businesses and organized to benefit our whole diverse community.”

Mom and Pot stores?

The first adult-use retail stores are likely to be the existing compassion centers, which will have priority for licenses. After that, “Perhaps 30 or 40 other stores would gradually open as they meet state licensing stipulations,” The Providence Journal quotes unnamed regulators as saying.

The proposed bill states that “The new office of cannabis regulation shall determine  an annual license and renewal fee for each type and/or class of marijuana establishment licensee,” so there is still time to consider fees that would be affordable by small businesses in the rollout of the new, legal retail marijuana industry in Rhode Island.

Other states, including Massachusetts, have social-equity programs that aim to include minorities in the fledgling industry, and we urge Rhode Island to consider similar initiatives.

NORML RI recommends: Fees that only wealthy corporations can afford should be drastically reduced or calculated on sales volumes, to ensure opportunities for small local businesses.

Record time

NORML RI is pleased that in July of 2018, RI House Bill 8355/S. 2447 was passed and signed by the governor; it allows those with past convictions for crimes involving the possession of less than one ounce of cannabis to petition the court to seek an order of expungement. Rhode Island decriminalized minor marijuana-possession offenses in 2013.

The House Finance Committee will soon hold public hearings on the 2020 budget bill (H 5151), one article at a time (Marijuana is Article 20). NORML RI will post the hearing date, when it is scheduled, on NORMLRI.com and on our Facebook page (Update: The first hearing has been scheduled for March 20, 2019). The final bill is likely to be amended by the committee before it’s sent to the full House for a vote, and debate will likely be fierce on both sides, so now is the time to speak up – show up at the March 20 hearing, and contact your state rep about amendments and changes you’d like to see.

NORML RI is pleased that legalization is finally coming to our state. We hope to help make its implementation intelligent, compassionate, sensible and reasonably profitable for all Rhode Islanders from the very beginning.

Follow NORML Rhode Island on Facebook and visit their website to stay up to date on marijuana legalization efforts in the state.