With the governor's signature today, legislation passed by the General Assembly yesterday to legalize, regulate and tax adult recreational cannabis use in Rhode Island is now law.
The new law makes Rhode Island the 19th state to legalize recreational cannabis use.
The legislation (2022-S 2430Aaa, 2022-H 7593Aaa), sponsored by Sen. Joshua Miller and Rep. Scott A. Slater, decriminalizes the sale and possession of up to 1 ounce of cannabis for those age 21 and up, with no more than 10 ounces for personal use kept in a primary residence. It also allows Rhode Islanders to grow a small amount of their own cannabis at home.
Following testimony and months of discussion on the bill, legislative leaders and the sponsors amended the bill to provide automatic expungement of previous convictions for cannabis possession by July 1, 2024, push the start date of legalized adult recreational sales from Oct. 1 to Dec. 1 and eliminate the current fees charged to patients and caregivers for registration in the state’s medical marijuana program, among other changes.
The law establishes a 10% state cannabis excise tax that will be imposed in addition to the 7% sales tax, plus a 3% local tax for the municipality where the sale takes place.
“The reality is that prohibition does not stop cannabis use. Since Rhode Islanders can already access cannabis just across the state border or on the illicit market, we experience all the challenges without any of the safeguards or resources that our neighboring states have. With this bill, we are ending prohibition in a way that is safe, keeps revenue in Rhode Island, and is as fair and equitable as we can possibly make it. This bill has been years in the making, and is a collaborative effort to address concerns about protecting medical use, ensuring fair governance and recognizing that we cannot make this transition without taking action to make whole the communities and individuals who have been punished for decades under prohibition,” said Senator Miller (D-Dist. 28, Cranston, Providence), chairman of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee.
The new law will provide for automatic expungement by July 1, 2024, of any prior civil violation, misdemeanor or felony conviction for possession of cannabis that would be decriminalized by the bill, without requiring affected individuals to file a request, pay a fee or have a hearing. It also provides an expedited process by request for those who wish to have their record expunged earlier.
The law allows a total of 33 licensed cannabis retailers statewide, including the nine approved compassion centers that could become hybrid medical/recreational retailers, distributed in six zones. Currently, only the three original licensed compassion centers are up and running, but the sponsors believe it’s possible that at least some of the six more that were recently approved will be open by Dec. 1, and that it is realistic to expect the hybrid licenses that will allow them to sell to recreational users will be approved by then.
The new law aims to reduce barriers to participation for those communities that have long been disproportionately affected by cannabis prohibition. The proposal uses licensing fees and penalties to fund technical assistance and grants to applicants and communities that have been impacted, and reserves one license in each of the six districts for a social equity licensee and another in each district for a co-op.
“Social equity has been a top concern for us throughout this whole process,” said Representative Slater (D-Dist. 10, Providence). “Senator Miller and I represent some of the communities that have suffered disproportionate harm from prohibition for decades, resulting in generational poverty and mass incarceration. The starting line isn’t the same for people in poor, urban and minority communities, and they deserve support to ensure they get the full benefit of participating in legalization. I am grateful to my colleagues in the General Assembly for recognizing the importance of expungement of criminal records and equity in licensing, because they are absolutely critical to ending prohibition fairly.”
Legislative leaders recognized that the bill is a significant shift in Rhode Island law, one that came as a result of years of work by its sponsors and other legislators, advocacy organizations, law enforcement and many others.
“I thank all the advocates, stakeholders, staff and especially Representative Scott Slater, who has worked tirelessly on this issue for the past decade,” said House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi (D-Dist. 23, Warwick). “The bill represents a strong foundation from which to build the safe, equitable regulation of cannabis for adult use. We are proud that this legislation prioritizes the participation of people most impacted by the past enforcement of cannabis laws both through automatic expungement and the creation of a licensing structure based on social equity.”
Said Senate Majority Leader Michael J. McCaffrey (D-Dist. 29, Warwick), “This is a truly momentous day for Rhode Island. I’m deeply grateful to Senator Miller for his years of hard work and leadership on this issue, and I’m incredibly proud to have been part of reaching this point. I also want to thank President Ruggerio for his support throughout this process. Ending cannabis prohibition helps us right past wrongs while creating new opportunities for all Rhode Islanders. This is the right move, at the right time, for our state.”
Under the bill, a three-member Cannabis Control Commission will be appointed by the governor with input from the Speaker of the House and approval from the Senate. That commission will be assisted by a Cannabis Advisory Board and the existing administrative Office of Cannabis Regulation within the Department of Business Regulation. That office will handle the transition to legal recreational use, including issuing hybrid licensing to existing compassion centers and cultivators.
The law allows municipalities to opt out of allowing marijuana sales in their community by referendum, although those currently hosting compassion centers will not have that option. Those hosting existing licensed cultivators or testing labs will be allowed to opt out, although those facilities will be grandfathered in. It provides a procedure for a community that opted out to revisit the issue in later years, and allows municipalities to ban cannabis use in public places by ordinance.
For participants in the state’s existing medical marijuana program, the law eliminates the current fees imposed upon patients, authorized purchasers and primary caregivers for registry identification cards and plant tags, effective when adult recreational sales begins on Dec. 1. It also extends to March 1, 2023, the deadline for those with out-of-state medical marijuana cards to provide government-issued identification from the same jurisdiction.
"This bill successfully incorporates our priorities of making sure cannabis legalization is equitable, controlled, and safe,” said Rhode Island Governor Dan 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.”