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Judiciary Committee examines marijuana legalization

Legalization bill would allocate millions in tax revenue to narcotic abuse prevention

The House Judiciary Committee last week heard testimony on several bills proposing to legalize marijuana in Rhode Island and to improve current regulations on the sale and distribution of medical marijuana.

While marijuana legalization has gained momentum in the state recently, there remain concerns for some about regulation and legalization’s effects.

Legalizing marijuana 

The first bill — introduced Feb. 13 by Rep. Edith Ajello, D-Providence — would legalize the possession and cultivation of small amounts of marijuana for personal use for adults over 21 years old, a policy supported by 47.6 percent of respondents in an April 10 poll from the Taubman Center for Public Policy and American Institutions. The committee heard testimony on the bill Wednesday.

Though laws prohibiting the sale and use of marijuana were passed to prevent drug abuse, rates of abuse in Rhode Island remain unchanged, said Robert Capecchi, deputy director of state policies at the Marijuana Policy Project, a national nonprofit advocating for the end of marijuana prohibition. And the state could better control who buys marijuana and where it is sold if the drug became legalized for personal use, he added.

The legislation would take “marijuana from criminal actors and (put) it behind the counter,” he said. Retailers have the incentive to check IDs and refuse to sell to minors, Capecchi added. “Drug dealers don’t have that incentive.”

“Prohibition has failed utterly to achieve its goals,” said Rebecca McGoldrick, executive director of Protect Families First, an organization that addresses the effects of drug policy on Rhode Island families and youth.

Unregulated use of marijuana has exposed young people to incarceration, violence and other harmful circumstances, McGoldrick said. She added that legalizing marijuana and regulating it using tools such as price controls, safety warnings and advertising restrictions would improve public health and promote social justice.

“We need to stop sending people to prison for recreational use of marijuana,” said House Majority Whip Rep. John Edwards, D-Portsmouth and Tiverton.

Though some have claimed that marijuana is a gateway drug that leads to the use of more dangerous and addictive substances, McGoldrick said this idea is a “logical fallacy.”

“What could be said is that where people buy marijuana is where other drugs are sold,” McGoldrick said, adding that regulating its sale and consumption would increase public safety.

Legal limits?

The potential legalization of marijuana is predicted to generate between $21 million and $82 million in tax revenue for Rhode Island, according to a policy report from Open Doors, a nonprofit organization advocating on behalf of the formerly incarcerated. The legalization bill would allocate 40 percent of this revenue to alcohol and drug abuse prevention.

There is some debate about how legalization would affect access and consumption.

“There is no question that whenever you increase access to something, you increase use,” said Frances Mantak, director of health education at Brown. Increased use creates public health concerns, Mantak said. “We don’t want to add more impaired drivers on our roads when we don’t have very strong enforcement and very strong laws.”

Others argue that access to the drug would remain unchanged after legalization.

Colorado and Washington passed laws that legalized the sale and cultivation of marijuana for adults 21 and over in 2012. Licensed marijuana retail stores in Colorado officially opened this January and have generated nearly $6 million in tax revenue.

“The sky hasn’t fallen in Colorado,” Capecchi said. “It looks like — and this is not definitive by any stretch of the imagination — marijuana use is down.” Decreased crime rates in Denver and increased tax revenue are early indications of the possible positive effects of legalization, he said.

“Marijuana is plenty accessible as is” in Rhode Island, Capecchi said. “All this change in policy will regulate is (who) is selling to whom.”

Though outgoing Gov. Lincoln Chafee ’75 P’14 P’17 has expressed his support for legalization, the gubernatorial candidates have remained largely neutral on the issue.

“A lot of people want to see what will happen in Colorado and Washington,” said Jared Moffat ’13, a former Herald opinions columnist and director of Regulate Rhode Island, a group that works to abolish marijuana prohibition in Rhode Island.

McGoldrick said she hopes the gubernatorial candidates will address this issue, which greatly affects community safety and health. “I really hope that one of them would step up and take a sensible approach to this issue,” she said.

“I would say there’s a decent chance of it going through,” Moffat said of the legislation.

Medical marijuana

Marijuana was decriminalized in Rhode Island and approved for medicinal use through the 2006 passage of the Edward O. Hawkins and Thomas C. Slater Medical Marijuana Act, which made permanent the program in 2007. But there are several complications with current medical marijuana policy.

Testimony on a bill to revise medical marijuana policies in the state, supported by Attorney General Peter Kilmartin and other public safety officers in Rhode Island, was heard before the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday, the Providence Journal reported.

The use of medical marijuana is “not about getting high,” said JoAnne Leppanen, executive director of the Rhode Island Patient Advocacy Coalition, a nonprofit organization coordinating patients, providers and caregivers in the medical marijuana community to promote safe access to care. “Most patients have no interest whatsoever in getting high. Most patients are just looking for relief.”

There is some degree of stigma associated with joining the medical marijuana program, Leppanen said. Many people are hesitant to ask their doctors about signing up or do not want to park outside designated compassion centers for fear that their cars will be recognized. Others resort to illegal self-medication rather than join the program, she added.

There are currently three compassion centers, located in Providence and Portsmouth, serving as dispensaries for medical marijuana in the state. The dispensaries are currently limited to 99 plants each, which Leppanen said is not enough to sustain the volume of patients in need.

“Definitely we can use some changes in the law,” Leppanen said. Today, more is known about the positive effects of medical marijuana than when the law was drafted, she added. “I think we would have drafted it much differently.”

The recently proposed bill would eliminate the plant limit in these compassion centers, but it would also decrease the number of plants caregivers can grow in the home from 12 to three, which Leppanen said she believes is too few.

Smoking marijuana is not the most effective way to absorb the medicine for some, Leppanen said, adding that some patients require more plant leaves for their therapy if they are applying the plant’s oils, rather than smoking it.

“It is the equivalent of taking medicine away from sick people,” she said. “Plant numbers can be very misleading. If anything, we should be looking for an increase; we certainly need an increase in dry, usable cannabis.”

As a result of the plant limit, compassion centers rely upon caregivers to provide the sufficient number of plants according to patient need, said Rep. Scott Slater, D-Providence, deputy majority leader and sponsor of the legalization bill. Slater’s father, former Rep. Thomas Slater, was one of the General Assembly’s biggest proponents of legalized medical marijuana, authored the Medical Marijuana Act and is the namesake for one of the state’s compassion centers.

“The reason for the compassion centers was to allow patients to get safe and affordable access to the medicine. There are complaints that the compassion centers are too expensive,” Scott Slater said.

‘No business moving forward’

But some in the state do not support the current legislation or changing the prohibitions on cannabis use in the state. The government has “no idea where marijuana is being grown in the state of Rhode Island,” said Rep. Lisa Tomasso, D-Coventry and West Greenwich, adding that marijuana abuse is “a problem that is pervasive throughout our entire state.”

“I think we have been very successful in implementing a program that is providing a necessary service for people in Rhode Island,” Tomasso said. But allowing individuals to cultivate marijuana in their homes negatively interferes with the quality of life of their neighbors, she added.

There have been several public safety concerns resulting from a lack of regulation. Several fires occurred due to the overloading of utilities for plant cultivation, and one explosion stemmed from unsafe growing practices, Tomasso said.

“We have been unable to regulate and provide safety in our community for a medical marijuana program. If we can’t do that, we have no business moving forward with another unregulated system,” she said. “If we are allowing anybody to grow marijuana for their own recreational purpose, there is no way to regulate it.”

It is not entirely clear what the comprehensive implications of the proposed policy changes would be. More research needs to be done to better understand the effects of marijuana, Mantak said.

Many effects of cannabis on young people remain unstudied as a result of government restrictions, Tomasso said. “We are unable to do the proper research on it.”


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