Bill would legalize marijuana in R.I.

Proponents say the state could save money on law enforcement and raise revenue from sales taxes

Senior Staff Writer
Thursday, February 7, 2013

State Rep. Edith Ajello, D-Providence, proposed a bill that would legalize marijuana for adult purchase and consumption in R.I.

State Rep. Edith Ajello, D-Providence announced a bill at a press conference yesterday that would legalize marijuana for retail and consumption by adults 21 years and older and provide for taxing and regulating the substance.

Ajello introduced the bill to the Rhode Island House of Representatives and was joined yesterday by State Sen. Donna Nesselbush ’84, D-Pawtucket, a sponsor of the bill in the Senate.

“People seem to be concerned about their children,” Ajello said at the press conference, noting constituents’ concerns that her bill would make access to marijuana easier. But Ajello said the bill aims to do the opposite and keep the drug out of the hands of young people. Currently, four out of five high school seniors report that marijuana is easy to acquire, Nesselbush said at the press conference.

“People who are selling it have no compunction,” Nesselbush said.

Both Ajello and Nesselbush said prohibition of marijuana was “ineffective,” resulting in criminal profits and easy access to the drug for minors and students. “Public officials are compelled to act,” Nesselbush said.

Law enforcement officials spend far too much energy and resources policing marijuana, and they will be able to focus more on “fighting violent crime” if the bill passes, Ajello said. Under marijuana prohibition, the state is “spending hard-earned tax dollars … incarcerating people who choose to consume a substance that appears to be less harmful than alcohol,” Nesselbush said.

A regulated market for marijuana would create much-needed tax revenue for the state, Ajello said. Nesselbush said it was irresponsible to “leave it up to criminals” to choose buyers for their product, especially when the state could create a new market with new jobs and taxable income. Tax revenue from marijuana sales would be used to fund drug education and treatment for those who need it, Nesselbush said. She said the bill would receive support from working-class members of her district when it became clear that the legalization of marijuana would not increase its use.

“Nationwide support (for legalization) is at an all-time high,” bolstered by the success Washington and Colorado have had with similar legislation, Ajello said. She has introduced similar bills last year and the year before without success.

If marijuana were to be legalized, the bill states that purchases would be limited to an ounce at a time, and the state would leverage a $50 per-ounce wholesale tax.

Legalization on a national scale would result in savings in government spending and sales tax revenue that would add up to between $10 and $14 billion, according to a report by Jeffery Miron, an economics professor at Harvard.

Ajello cited Rhode Island’s defiance of the national prohibition of alcohol 80 years ago, when it was the only state in the nation to “recognize that such a system was bound to fail” and “refuse to ratify the 18th amendment.” She said the legalization of marijuana would solve many of the same problems that prohibition created, such as illegal activity and underage use. During prohibition, “the product remained, as did the supply,” Ajello said.

“I see myself as a no-nonsense senator,” said Nesselbush, “And this bill makes sense … and dollars and cents.”

“This is not such a liberal, wild-haired idea,” Ajello added.

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