2017-03-09 / Front Page

Marijuana Debate Fired Up at State and Local Level

By Tom Walsh

State officials and municipal leaders who oppose the legalization of recreational marijuana in Rhode Island were poised to gather on Thursday, March 9, to voice their concerns to State Attorney General Peter Kilmartin. In addition, they were joined by members of the medical community, business leaders and law enforcement.

Kilmartin, in partnership with Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM), the Ocean State Prevention Alliance, and What’s the Rush, RI?, hosted the gathering at the Office of the Attorney General, where a new ad campaign called “Are We Sure?” was expected to be launched, highlighting the unintended health and safety consequences of marijuana legalization.

The group is opposed to legislation sponsored by Sen. Joshua Miller, D-Cranston, and State Rep. Scott Slater, D-Providence, that would allow out-of-state companies to sell and advertise marijuana. Slater and Miller have submitted legislation to the House and Senate to legalize adult use of recreational marijuana.

Sen. Louis P. DiPalma, D-Middletown, remains strongly opposed to legalizing marijuana in Rhode Island under any circumstances.

He maintained that legalizing marijuana could hurt the economy, especially on Aquidneck Island, because marijuana users who are otherwise qualified to work in the defense industry often cannot pass tests that screen for such use.

DiPalma added that the issue should be put before voters at a referendum, rather than being handled as a legislative matter. “It’s about doing the right thing,” he said. “It’s about policy. We still don’t know the negative results of making it legal.”

If enacted in its current form, the marijuana legislation would impose a 23 percent excise tax on retail sales of legalized marijuana, in addition to the Rhode Island sales tax. Medical marijuana sales would be exempt from the tax. Taxes would be disbursed to pay expenses for a marijuana office and for other state agencies that provide related services.

In addition to the submitted bills, the House and Senate have received measures that would establish legislative study commissions to look more closely at the marijuana issue.

“There is too much at stake from both a financial and public health standpoint to rush into legalization,” said Rep. Dennis M. Canario, D-Portsmouth, a sponsor of the House measure.

Such study panels give House and Senate leaders more time to determine how to move a difficult issue forward.

“They will be part of the overall debate,” said Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed, D-Newport. “Most of us are watching Massachusetts and the position of the federal government. This is an issue that we need to debate as a matter of policy.”

A poll taken in late January and commissioned by Regulate Rhode Island, an organization that promotes legalizing recreational marijuana use in the state, found that 59 percent of the 759 registered Rhode Island voters who participated favor the legalization of recreational marijuana. In Newport, only 156 voters responded, with 64 percent in favor. The poll was conducted by Public Policy Polling, a Raleigh, North Carolina-based opinion research company.

Paiva Weed was leery of the poll’s results. “Polls that are done by advocacy groups, I’m skeptical of,” she said.

Newport police declined to comment on the poll’s findings. In Middletown, police Lt. Jason Ryan said, “As far as legalizing marijuana, we closely follow the Rhode Island Police Chiefs Association. They are against legalization, so we are against it as well.”

The Middletown Town Council voted unanimously last August to prohibit the town from licensing businesses that violate state, local or federal law, although that action did not specifically target marijuana.

Under President Obama, the federal government did not attempt to force states to comply with federal law on the marijuana issue. Paiva Weed said that President's Trump's position is unknown.

In addition to Massachusetts and Maine, marijuana use is also now legal in California, Colorado, Nevada, Washington, Oregon and Alaska.

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