Governor Raimondo pitches legalizing marijuana in upcoming budget proposal

PROVIDENCE, R.I. – As more and more recreational marijuana stores open up in Massachusetts, neighboring Rhode Island may follow suit.

Governor Gina Raimondo (D) will pitch legalizing recreational use of the drug in her upcoming budget proposal, according to administration officials. She has budgeted $3.5-million for regulation and enforcement.

Marijuana would have a tax rate of roughly 20-percent, just like Massachusetts, except the breakdown is different (7-percent sales tax, 10-percent retail marijuana excise tax and a weight-based excise tax).

Home growing would be prohibited, except for certain medical patients. “It is very, very hard, if not impossible, to regulate,” explained Norman Birenbaum with the Department of Business Regulation, during a press briefing Monday. “While the administration has made great strides to regulate it more effectively on the medical side, it is not something we are prepared to allow under an adult use regulatory structure.”

Raimondo is also proposing saliva chemical tests to better test for drivers’ marijuana impairment, which the Department of Health would need to approve. Drivers who refuse to be evaluated by drug recognition experts or refuse to take a roadside chemical test for marijuana would face a mandatory six-month suspension of their license (as with alcohol).

Officials estimate the state would see $6.5-million in revenue in fiscal year 2020 – with the first retail stores potentially opening as early as January 2020. Most of the revenue, 60-percent, would go into the general fund. 25-percent would go toward regulation and public safety and the remaining 15-percent would go to cities and towns (with more money going to areas that sell more).

“We have great infrastructure to be able to implement this quickly in a way that safeguards public health and public safety, but can stand up an industry faster than other states have done this in the past,” said Birenbaum.

Meanwhile, House Speaker Nick Mattiello and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio remain concerned over whether legalizing marijuana is the best approach.

“I appreciate the Governor’s viewpoints and I have expressed similar concerns about our neighboring states moving forward with legalization, leaving Rhode Island to bear the social costs without the benefit of the revenue,” said Mattiello in a statement. “However, I still have mixed feelings. My House colleagues have strong and differing viewpoints, and we will collectively assess the Governor’s proposal and come up with a consensus pathway forward.”

“While I continue to keep an open mind on legalization of recreational marijuana as the state looks into the regulatory and workforce challenges that come along with it, I also have significant concerns, particularly with regard to workforce issues, enforcement around edibles, and impact on children,” Ruggerio said in a statement. “I will look to the experience in Massachusetts as legalization is implemented there, and proceed very cautiously as we continue to have this important public discussion.”

Raimondo’s proposal would also ban home growing. Birenbaum says Rhode Island would join Washington as the only states to enforce such a ban. Only medical marijuana patients demonstrating hardship would be allowed to grow at home.

Under the proposal, a new Office of Cannabis Regulation would be created within the Department of Business Regulation. Edible marijuana would be in a generic shape (no gummy bears, cupcakes, etc) and cartoons would not be allowed in packaging so as not to attract children.

The governor is expected to address her marijuana proposal in Tuesday night’s State of the State address. Her full budget proposal will be released Thursday.

© WLNE-TV 2019