2017-01-19 / Front Page

Legislators Weigh in on Recreational Marijuana

By Tom Walsh

State Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed, D-Newport, says she has “significant concerns” with soon-to-be-submitted legislation that would make Rhode Island the nation’s ninth state to legalize the use of marijuana for recreational purposes.

“I’m open to discussion, but I have significant concerns about such legislation,” she said. Any Statehouse debate about legalizing recreational marijuana should not primarily focus on new revenue that such a move would bring to state government, she added. “This should also be viewed as a quality of life and safety issue.”

The use of marijuana for medical purposes is already permitted in Rhode Island.

Despite a six-month delay that was recently signed into law by Massachusetts Gov. Charles Baker after voters there approved a referendum legalizing recreational marijuana in November, the Bay State’s push toward legalization has spurred Rhode Island advocates to try again after eight straight years of futility.

“I think the chances are good,” said state Rep. Scott L. Slater, D-Providence, who said he will again sponsor a bill that is similar to those that have failed in previous General Assembly sessions. “We haven’t gotten a commitment [from leadership] yet, but I think this is going to happen.”

Proponents of legalizing recreational marijuana maintain that legislation tightly regulating its use would provide a far safer environment.

“This bill does not target kids,” Slater said. “For one thing, it will mandate that legal users must be 21 or older. With a regulated market, the recreational use of marijuana would be similar to using alcohol. Many kids in Rhode Island are using right now. They can go on the street and get stuff that could be laced with other things.”

Slater pointed to Colorado, which recently passed a law legalizing recreational marijuana use. “Teen consumption has already decreased in that market,” he said.

In 2012, the Rhode Island General Assembly voted to “decriminalize” marijuana as of April 1, 2013, when holding less than one ounce of marijuana became punishable by a fine of up to $150. Paiva Weed said that greatly diminished penalties to a “parking ticket level” to individual users and put the law enforcement spotlight squarely on marijuana dealers who now operate outside the law.

“That was significant,” Paiva Weed said. “It means that these people do not get a conviction on their records.”

In so doing, Rhode Island became the 14th state to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana.

The Senate president said she believes that marijuana use can be a troubling workplace issue for employers as well as workers, particularly in some defense-related industries that exist in Newport County. “It’s important to educate people about that aspect,” she said.

While eight years of trying to legislatively move recreational marijuana have yet to produce results, there is no shortage of debate on the issue in Rhode Island.

“My understanding is that the House is waiting to see what happens in Massachusetts,” said Rep. Lauren Carson, D-Newport. “The delay in Massachusetts has kind of put the brakes on the conversation. But I do think there is a fair amount of support for it.”

“I do not support it,” state Sen. Louis P. DiPalma, D-Middletown, said flatly. “For me, it’s a policy issue. The detrimental effects that marijuana has on the developing brain is the reason.” He said there have been no medical studies that contradicted that belief.

For her part, Gov. Gina Raimondo has indicated in the past that she does not want to move hastily on this issue. House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello has said that he has an open mind about recreational marijuana.

At other levels, disagreement remains.

The Rev. Alexander Sharp, executive director of the Chicago-based Clergy for a New Drug Policy, said the Slater bill “would end the costly and destructive policy of marijuana prohibition in Rhode Island.” And, he added, “The war on marijuana has done far more damage to society than marijuana itself.”

Contrast those statements with another one, closer to home, from the Rev. Thomas J. Tobin, Roman Catholic bishop of Providence: “I urge our state leaders to say no to the legalization of marijuana in Rhode Island. In opening the door to drug use even a little bit, we have so much to lose and absolutely nothing to gain.”

On Aquidneck Island, the Middletown Town Council, in a 7-0 vote last August, voted to bar the town from licensing businesses that violate local, state, or federal law. The ordinance change did not specifically name marijuana, but the new language would prohibit the sale of the drug for both medical and recreational purposes, since it remains illegal under federal law. The new rules, according to a report, were part of a town effort to slow the expansion of marijuana use should the General Assembly ever legalize it for recreational purposes.

Paiva Weed said she is ready for this issue in 2017. “I anticipate that the legislation will be introduced and that there will be a robust discussion,” she said. For now, she plans to take a closer look at how things have gone with recreational marijuana in Colorado.

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