A Cranston lawmaker is backing a new proposal to legalize and tax marijuana in a manner similar to alcohol, calling such a shift the “right direction” for the state.
“Marijuana prohibition has been a long-term failure,” said Sen. Joshua Miller, a Democrat who represents District 28 and chairs the Senate’s Health and Human Services Committee, in a General Assembly news release. “Forcing marijuana into the underground market ensures authorities have no control of the product. Regulating marijuana would allow the product to be sold safely and responsibly by legitimate businesses in appropriate locations.”
Other officials, meanwhile, say the prospect of legalization is problematic from a public safety and health perspective.
“We need more jobs in the state, not more people getting high,” said Johnston Mayor Polisena.
The legislation introduced by Miller and state Rep. Edith Ajello of Providence, who represents District 1 and chairs the House Judiciary Committee, would regulate marijuana in much the same way as alcohol. According to the news release on the proposal, it would be legal for adults over the age of 21 to possess up to one ounce of marijuana and grow up to two plants – only one of which may be mature – within an “enclosed, locked space.”
The law would also establish a “tightly regulated system of licensed marijuana retail stores, cultivation facilities and testing facilities,” and would put in place an excise tax of as much as $50 an ounce for the wholesale distribution of marijuana flowers. A special 10-percent sales tax would be applied for retail transactions.
The proposal would additionally “require the Department of Business Regulation to establish rules regulating security, labeling, health and safety requirements.”
Miller, who previously served on a commission that studied marijuana legalization in Rhode Island, noted that a version of the bill has been introduced for the last several years. The latest legislation, he said, is modified based on feedback from experts and members of the community.
“People know that I’ve been involved in looking at this seriously,” he said. “We think it’s the right direction to go, and we’ve gotten a lot of support.”
The 10-percent sales tax is one new feature, he said, as is the call to direct 40 percent of revenue from marijuana sales toward drug addiction treatment.
“We’re in a region that has a serious overdose crisis going on,” he said, calling the funding for treatment a “very important component” of the latest bill.
Miller said as the state continues to struggle economically, regulating and taxing marijuana would provide a “permanent and important revenue stream.”
“We’re looking for revenue more than ever,” he said.
The senator also said legalization would result in significant savings from a law enforcement, judicial and corrections perspective.
Polisena said the assertion that legalizing marijuana would provide a fiscal boon to Rhode Island is “nonsense” and a “façade.” He called marijuana a “gateway drug” that can lead people – particularly youths – down a dangerous path, and cited concerns over public safety issues such as people driving while under the influence.
Polisena said it is “very frustrating” to see legislative attention directed away from the economic challenges facing the state, and added that he believes most members of the community feel the same way.
“I think we should be focusing on the economy in this state, not legalizing marijuana,” he said. “We need to keep creating jobs.”
Miller and Ajello both pointed to a Public Policy Polling survey conducted in mid-January that found 53 percent of the state’s voters support regulating and taxing marijuana in the same way as alcohol, with 41 percent opposed.
“Most Rhode Island voters agree it is time to end marijuana prohibition and start treating the product like alcohol,” said Ajello in the news release. “Regulation allows us to create barriers to teen access, such as ID checks and serious penalties for selling to those under 21. Taxing marijuana sales will generate tens of millions of dollars in much-needed tax revenue for the state, a portion of which will be directed towards programs that treat and prevent alcohol and other substance abuse.”
Marijuana remains an illegal substance under federal law, but its use for both medicinal and recreational purposes has been legalized in some states. Rhode Island is among those allowing for medical use, while Washington and Colorado have made the drug legal. The U.S. Department of Justice has indicated it will not interfere with regulation and taxation efforts on the state level, and many other cities and states have made marijuana possession a civil offense.