A special legislative commission is looking into the potential effects of legalizing recreational marijuana in Rhode Island as the state's northern neighbor readies to allow recreational marijuana sales.
Bills to legalize and tax recreational marijuana in Rhode Island have stalled in previous legislative sessions. The General Assembly agreed in June to look into the issue further by creating the commission, which met for the first time Wednesday.
Voters in Massachusetts approved legalizing the adult use of recreational marijuana in November. Massachusetts officials have been cautious about the rollout and sales have been delayed.
Democratic state Sen. Joshua Miller has sponsored legislation to legalize recreational marijuana in Rhode Island. He said he's concerned Rhode Island will miss out on tax revenue and economic development from allowing sales if the state waits too long and residents get used to buying marijuana in Massachusetts. He said he'd like to craft new legislation to legalize and tax recreational marijuana based on the commission's findings.
Miller leads the commission with Democratic state Rep. Dennis Canario. Canario, a retired Portsmouth, Rhode Island, police officer, said he has seen firsthand what happens when people drive impaired and he wants to know what, if any, benefits legalization would have for the state. He said he's keeping an open mind and doesn't feel pressured to act by Massachusetts developments. He wants to know how much it would cost the state upfront to set up a system to tax and regulate marijuana.
"Is there really a benefit to this besides giving the green light to someone to go out and get high? Are the positives going to outweigh the negatives? I don't know," Canario said. "The commission is so important, to get the answers to these questions."
In Massachusetts, while provisions that allow individuals to legally possess up to an ounce of marijuana and grow up to six pot plants per person or up to 12 per household have been in effect since December, it paradoxically remains illegal to sell the drug except for medicinal reasons.
The legislature delayed retail marijuana sales for six months, then revised the law to include higher taxes and stricter rules around the marketing, packaging and labeling of marijuana products. The commission responsible for regulating marijuana didn't hold its first meeting until September and still has little staff or budget. The panel said it was committed to meeting a July 1, 2018, deadline for licensing the state's first pot shops.
Voters in Maine also approved legalizing recreational marijuana in November. Possession became legal this year, though lawmakers have delayed marijuana sales to at least February 2018. Republican Gov. Paul LePage wants to delay sales until 2019.
Vermont's legislature approved the use of recreational marijuana this year, but the bill was vetoed by Republican Gov. Phil Scott. The governor said he wanted to know the best way to ensure highway safety, protect young people from possible health effects and tax and regulate marijuana.
Last month, Scott appointed a study commission. Its final report is due December 2018. Lawmakers expect to revisit the issue in January.
Rhode Island's 19-member commission is scheduled to meet again Nov. 7. It includes lawmakers, representatives from Smart Approaches to Marijuana, the Substance Use Mental Health Council of RI, the Rhode Island Medical Society, Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce, Department of Health and the Rhode Island Police Chiefs Association, a medical marijuana patient and others.
The membership is fairly evenly split between people who generally favor legalization and those who don't, Miller said. The commission plans to reach out to states that have legalized recreational marijuana, including Colorado and Washington. Its report, with recommendations, is due by March 1.