The Marijuana Policy Project, an organization focusing on drug policy reform, has set its sights on legalization in 10 new states including Rhode Island, following major victories in Colorado and Washington during the 2012 election.
The MPP hopes Rhode Island will legalize marijuana through its legislature, said Karen O’Keefe, the group’s director of state policies, in a Washington Post article. Legalization in Colorado and Washington passed through popular vote.
A marijuana legalization bill has been introduced during the last three sessions in the Rhode Island General Assembly, with the most recent introduced in the 2013 session. Though the legislature adjourned before voting on the bill, the legislation could have legalized the sale and consumption of marijuana. The proposed bill included regulations on the sale of marijuana for adults ages 21 and over.
“There just seems to be a great coalition of support and a lot of momentum in the legislature,” O’Keefe told the Post.
The bill is supported in the House by the chair of the Judiciary Committee, Rep. Edith Ajello, D-Providence, and about 50 percent of the committee supports marijuana legalization, said Robert Capecchi, deputy director of state policies at MPP.
Capecchi said the state already has a good medical marijuana program in place, and the decriminalization law that went into effect in April 2013 makes Rhode Island a good candidate for marijuana legalization.
Rhode Island became the 15th state to decriminalize marijuana when the legislation passed last year. Under current law, possession of one ounce of marijuana by adults 18 or over will result in a $150 ticket. Before the decriminalization bill was passed, offenders faced a $500 fine and up to one year in prison.
Popular support for marijuana legalization among state residents matches its support in the legislature. According to a January 2012 survey by Public Policy Polling, 52 percent of Rhode Island citizens support taxing and regulating marijuana like alcohol. This number is comparable to national statistics — a Pew Research Center poll found that 52 percent of Americans support marijuana legalization. The bill that decriminalized marijuana passed with the support of 65 percent of Rhode Islanders, according to the PPP.
Capecchi said that the path to marijuana legalization in Rhode Island will be different from those in Washington and Colorado, adding that lawmakers’ focus will be on constituent support.
Many of the bill’s supporters point to the possible economic benefits of marijuana legalization. Rhode Island currently spends money to enforce marijuana prohibition yet does not reap the tax benefits of its sale and consumption, Capecchi said, adding that the decriminalization bill helped to decrease the cost of enforcement but did not eliminate it.
The legalization bill proposed a $50 per ounce excise tax at the wholesale level, as well as a sales tax that would increase the state’s revenue. Marijuana legalization could also build up an industry and create jobs, which would generate more income taxes. Capecchi said the overall economic benefits would be “varied and positive.”
On the other hand, Smart Approaches to Marijuana, a project within a drug policy consulting company that opposes the legalization of marijuana, claims legalization would only create another “Big” industry, similar to “Big Tobacco” or “Big Alcohol.”
But Capecchi said that regulating a legal marijuana industry, even if it is a big industry, is still better than giving business to criminals, adding that the current bill would only allot a fixed number of wholesale licenses.
“I think that fear is blown out of proportion,” Capecchi said. “Let’s not forget there’s still a federal prohibition.”
Three weeks ago, the U.S. Department of Justice allowed Colorado and Washington to implement their marijuana legalization laws. Though the department’s memo maintains the illegality of marijuana at the federal level, it sets out priorities for the DOJ in states that have legalized recreational marijuana. These include restrictions on sales to minors and on inter-state distribution, as well as measures to prevent violence in the cultivation and distribution of marijuana.
Federal legalization of marijuana is unlikely given the strict provisions set out in the 1961 United Nations treaty, Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs.
Despite this, the Obama administration has previously stated that it will not send DEA agents to states that have legalized marijuana as long as those states maintain a “tightly regulated market,” according to an article on Slate.com.