As state lawmakers consider two proposals legalizing recreational marijuana, East Greenwich is beginning to think about how it would deal with the economic and public safety ramifications of such legislation.
Rhode Island lawmakers have described marijuana legalization as “inevitable,” but there has been debate on how to go about. With two proposals being considered, one from the governor’s fiscal year budget proposal and the other from the state Senate, legalization this year seems more likely than ever, but not guaranteed.
Gov. Dan McKee’s plan would legalize recreational marijuana, but caps the number of retailers to 25 new stores each year through a lottery system statewide for the first three years of sales. The Department of Business Regulation’s Office of Cannabis Regulation would oversee the industry, and the first five licenses each year would go to women or minority-owned businesses. Current compassion centers would not have to enter the lottery but could apply for a hybrid medical and recreational license.
The bill in the Rhode Island State Senate, co-sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Michael McCaffrey and Sen. Joshua Miller, would create a cannabis control commission to approve licenses and oversee the marketplace for recreational marijuana, similar to Massachusetts. Unlike McKee’s proposal, the Senate plan has no hard cap on the number of licensed sellers: the only rules would be allowing up to three licenses for communities of 30,000 or less, or one license per 10,000 residences for large communities.
Under the Senate plan, cannabis purchases would be subject to a 3 percent local tax for the municipality in which a store is located, while McKee’s does not include this. The governor’s proposal would prevent people from growing cannabis at home outside of registered home growers, while the Senate proposal allows citizens to home-grow up to six “active” marijuana plants, or 12 total. In the governor’s plan, municipalities could opt out of all cannabis license types through referendum, while the Senate plan would only allow municipalities to opt out of selling marijuana. Opting out would forego potentially large local tax revenue, however.
The House Finance Committee held a hearing on this portion of the budget proposal last week, but they have not taken action on it yet. The Senate held a hearing on its legislation in early April and has also not taken action.
State Sen. Bridget Valverde, whose constituency includes most of East Greenwich, supports legalizing recreational marijuana because it would allow the state to regulate recreational cannabis. She said most other states in New England have already done so, so it doesn’t make sense for Rhode Island not to do the same when states at borders are bringing marijuana into Rhode Island regardless.
Valverde said she prefers the Senate version of the bill because she says it has been in the works for nearly eight years. She liked that the Senate bill would expunge records for people criminalized for smoking marijuana before legalization. Valverde also emphasized the economic impact of legalization.
“There’s going to be statewide tax revenue that could help the entire state,” Valverde said. “In the Senate proposal there is an additional 3 percent tax that goes directly to the municipality that hosts the dispensary, so that could have positive local impact.”
The Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns said in a press release that if marijuana is legalized, towns should receive at least a 3 percent sales tax, as detailed in the Senate proposal. They argued towns need the revenue to compensate for legalization’s impact on congestion and public safety in their neighborhoods. The League also supports municipal safety grants since communities that opt out could still be impacted by legalization in the state.
East Greenwich Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Stephen Lombardi said the Chamber has not taken a stance on marijuana legalization or its impact on the town’s economy. However, he said he hopes municipalities have a say in what they allow in their communities, regardless of if or which legislation is passed.
“If it were to be approved, then we’d hope the details are fully thought through for all aspects, including employers and businesses who may want to sell it,” Lombardi said. “We hope the concerns of employers throughout the state are heard.”
Town Council President Mark Schwager agreed with the Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns’ call for ensuring that municipalities have some control over zoning and marijuana sales.
“We’d like the municipality to be able to regulate and enforce certain zoning in recreational marijuana, but a lot of that depends on the wording of the bill,” Schwager said. “We know it’ll be passed at the state level but when implemented at the local level, education and enforcement will be important. We know there should be resources to do that but it’s a bit unclear how that’ll come.”
Schwager said the council will discuss the issue more during its next meeting on May 10. He said the town will need to consider how the legalization status in neighboring communities will affect the town, regardless of marijuana’s status in East Greenwich.
“There will be various community groups with opinions on if we participate or not,” Schwager said. “And if we did want to have recreational marijuana in town there would need to be areas to have that that would not adversely impact the community.”
Some town officials also had concerns regarding the social and safety impact of legalization in the state.
“The thing I have to be most concerned about is ensuring young people are not gaining access to it, our highways are safe and we are not having people on the road who are significantly impaired, and adults who are choosing to use it are aware of how it impacts their body,” Bob Houghtaling, East Greenwich’s substance abuse coordinator, said.
Police Chief Stephen Brown explained he doesn’t think legalization will immediately cause an increase in marijuana use. He believes people who smoke when it is first legalized will likely be people who have been using it already. Brown also said it’s too soon to tell what the police department’s public education initiatives would be regarding marijuana, but he said it could be similar to the education they give on alcohol.
Regarding driving, Brown said there’s currently no specific field sobriety or breathalyzer test for marijuana, although he said there are people working on a chemical marijuana test. He said the department will use whatever resources available to enforce violations of driving under the influence.
Ultimately, Brown said the safety impact of legalization will be fairly small at least initially.
“A lot of the laws have been relaxed over the years anyway,” Brown said. “I don’t believe there’s going to be a major drain on public safety because of that.”