SRhode Island Should Legalize Marijuana, Senate Majority Leader Says

The majority leader of the Rhode Island Senate says the state should join others that have recently legalized marijuana, and other top lawmakers who have in recent years been reluctant to advance the issue seem newly open to the idea as a way to boost the economy.

“The time has come to legalize adult cannabis use,” Sen. Michael McCaffrey (D) said shortly after being reelected to serve in the leadership post by his colleagues on Friday. “We have studied this issue extensively, and we can incorporate the practices we’ve learned from other states.”

“Further, our policy of prohibition no longer makes sense with Massachusetts moving towards a robust legalization system,” he said. “We can create jobs, capture lost tax revenue and fund important social programs going forward.”

Gov. Gina Raimondo (D) has included marijuana legalization language in her budget proposals for the past two years, but the legislature has so far refused to advance the issue beyond moves to expand the state’s existing medical cannabis system.

But McCaffrey’s new comments, along with those from Senate President Dominick Ruggerio (D), who also got the endorsement of the party’s caucus to continue in his leadership role next year, indicate that lawmakers may be ready to end cannabis prohibition for adults in 2021.

Ruggerio, who has repeatedly expressed opposition to the reform in the past, said on Friday that the body would “take a good look” at the issue.

“I’ve had some concerns in the past about the social costs that exist with that,” he said after the Friday caucus meeting. “We’re in a tough situation as far as our revenue is concerned. I don’t want to look at it just as a revenue source, so I’m interested in seeing what we can come up with, similar to what they’ve done with the medical marijuana.”

Ruggerio said that his opposition last year came in the context of a solid economy, but that the coronavirus pandemic has changed the situation. “I’m not going to put my personal objections ahead of anything that could be good for the people of the state of Rhode Island,” he said.

Marijuana legalization may also get a boost from the fact that House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello (D), who has also said the state isn’t ready to legalize marijuana, lost his reelection bid last week and won’t be around to hold up reform legislation next year.

On Thursday, House Democrats voted to nominate Rep. Joe Shekarchi (D) to serve as the body’s next speaker. He told reporters after the caucus vote that legalizing marijuana is “on the table” as way to raise revenue for the state.

“I am open to the idea,” he said. “I do not have a position on it. Some of my colleagues have been talking about it.”

The effort to legalize marijuana in Rhode Island and other states appears to be getting a boost with the clean sweep that cannabis advocate achieved during last week’s elections. Five states voted to end the prohibition of cannabis for recreational and/or medical use.

Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont (D) said that New Jersey’s vote in particular intensifies the need to enact reform in his own state. Doing so, he said, could cut down on unnecessary travel—and resulting spread of coronavirus—from his constituents traveling to nearby legal markets to buy marijuana.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), meanwhile, said last week that the time is “ripe” to legalize cannabis in his own state in the coming year after he put the issue in his budget proposals for the past two years without getting it over the finish line.

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