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Marijuana legalization proposal races against Statehouse clock

Brown community activists hope to see Rep. Scott Slater’s bill passed against odds as legislative session nears end

Three weeks remain in Rhode Island’s legislative session — and the clock is ticking on Democratic Rep. Scott Slater’s recreational marijuana proposal. Slater introduced the bill, which aims to legalize the use of recreational marijuana in the Ocean State, at the end of last month.  

The legislation would additionally expunge all past marijuana-related convictions, waive court-related fees and establish a “social equity fund” which would put money from licensing fees toward restorative justice, education and workforce development, according to the bill. These investments are intended to benefit communities of color disproportionately impacted by the nation’s war on drugs. 

The bill also calls for the establishment of 15 recreational dispensaries in the state within the legislation’s first three years — five of which would be designated to be run by applicants selected to advance social equity, while one would be reserved for a worker-owned cooperative.

But to many, the bill appears unlikely to pass in time. Two previous legalization efforts were proposed earlier this year by Governor Dan McKee and Senator Michael McCaffrey, D-Warwick, and have yet to be voted on.

With only three weeks until this legislative session adjourns, Slater and his peers will need to move quickly to see the legislation passed.

“I definitely think there’s enough time to address this,” Slater told POLITICO at the end of May. “It’s not like this is something that's coming out of the blue. We've debated this and had hearings on it for a number of years.”

Despite popular support from many R.I. Democrats, other obstacles within the House have persisted in addition to the time crunch. The “biggest wild card” in this fight is House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi, D-Warwick.

“I am keeping an open mind on the issue of legalizing recreational marijuana,” Shekarchi wrote in an email to The Herald. “There are many pressing matters before the legislature and I don’t know if we’ll take up the issue this year, but there is always time and we will do our best to address it.”

Shekarchi wrote that the House Finance Committee will be holding a hearing to review the proposal. But the R.I. legislature already has a full plate when it comes to cannabis legislation. “The Senate and Governor McKee have two divergent proposals they are trying to reconcile,” he wrote.

Shekarchi has not openly expressed whether he is in favor of or against Slater’s proposal, according to POLITICO. 

McKee’s March budget proposal included plans for a regulated marijuana market, and McCaffrey’s proposed legislation would create a five-member Cannabis Control Commission. Both plans were critiqued by progressives for not doing enough to assist those harmed by the war on drugs. 

“A joke in politics is that the best way to make sure your bill doesn't get passed is to run it at the end of the session,” said Adrian Oteiza ’24, the current president of Brown University Students for Sensible Drug Policy. “I've heard rumors that they may push (the bill) back to September.”

Yet Oteiza remains “cautiously optimistic” about the legalization of cannabis in Rhode Island. Even if Slater’s bill is postponed, it will help kickstart “healthy conversation” on the issue, Oteiza added. 

Hailing from Colorado, Oteiza said he saw how his home state’s “legalization effort went really poorly” — something he attributes to Colorado being one of the first states to legalize marijuana. “In all honesty, I wish Rhode Island passed legalization measures sooner, but taking the time has some real advantages,” he said. 

Oteiza added that he is “really excited” about the focus on people of color and worker co-ops in Slater’s bill. 

Nadir Pearson ’19, founder of the Student Marijuana Alliance for Research and Transparency, said that he hopes R.I. marijuana legalization will be a “way to start to bring the community together” through reinvestment and social equity efforts. 

“Every year on 4/20, kids at Brown smoke on campus,” Pearson said, referring to April 20, a date celebrated by many marijuana-users. “For other folks, just maybe a mile or two away, that's a very different reality.”

Both Pearson and Oteiza expressed hope that proper legislation and resource distribution can produce equitable opportunity for those looking to enter the cannabis market.

“Generally, illegal drugs tend to be a large source of income for the societally marginalized,” Oteiza said. “Then what people jokingly call ‘Wall Street brokers without ties’ see another industry they can hop on and they just eat up everything. So I really appreciate the effort for this measure to really address that.”


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