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Rhode Island considers marijuana legalization

A hearing on legislation that would legalize recreational marijuana will take place next week at the Rhode Island State House. Similar hearings on marijuana legalization have occurred for years, but the passage of the legislation seems more likely than ever this year, according to advocates like Jared Moffat.

For the past four years, Moffat, 25, has been leading the push for the legalization of recreational marijuana in the state. As director of Regulate Rhode Island, an organization he founded, Moffat works full time on getting the legislation, called the Adult Use of Cannabis Act, passed.

Moffat became passionate about drug policy in high school, after he was arrested for marijuana possession in his hometown of Jackson, Mississippi. One night when he and his girlfriend parked at their usual smoke spot, a swarm of police cars surrounded them and searched Moffat’s car.

“If I could go back, I wouldn’t recommend to myself to use marijuana in high school,” Moffat said. “But what I experienced was, I’d used marijuana for about a year and no one knew it. My grades were still really good, life was fine. And then I got arrested, and that’s what caused a lot of problems, not the marijuana itself.”

Faced with only a year in drug court, which Moffat said even the judge treated as a joke, his lenient punishment made him realize how much benefit he got under the criminal justice system as a wealthy white student with good grades. Even so, a lot of teachers and friends turned their backs on Moffat because of the arrest.

Once Moffat became a student at Brown University in 2009, he worked on Rhode Island’s marijuana decriminalization bill, which passed in 2012. The law, now in place, makes possession of up to one ounce of marijuana a non-arrestable offense that can’t go on a criminal record. The only available punishment is a fine of up to $150, a big change from Rhode Island’s previous policy, which made marijuana a criminal misdemeanor punishable by one year in jail and a fine of up to $500.

Working on the decriminalization campaign allowed Moffat to experience the legislative process for the first time. He testified at the State House and worked with lobbyists and legislators, things that are now part of his everyday job as director of Regulate Rhode Island. After graduating from Brown in 2013, Moffat founded the organization with the goal of legalizing marijuana for recreational use in the state. Through Regulate RI, Moffat has created a large coalition of local organizations, ranging from the state’s chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union to the Rhode Island National Organization for Women, that all support legalization. In 2014, the Washington D.C.-based Marijuana Policy Project, or MPP, began funding Regulate RI. MPP is the largest national organization aimed at ending marijuana prohibition, and its state chapters have been active in many successful legalization campaigns, including that of Massachusetts.

Massachusetts residents voted to legalize marijuana for recreational use last November, and legalization so close to home has made Rhode Island politicians consider legalization more than ever. Following Massachusetts’ vote to legalize, Governor Gina Raimondo said she’d take a more serious look at recreational legalization in Rhode Island, which legalized medical marijuana in 2006.

In February, identical bills were introduced in the House and Senate to legalize and regulate marijuana similarly to alcohol and tobacco. The Adult Use of Cannabis Act would allow Rhode Islanders 21 and over to possess up to five ounces of marijuana at home, and to carry up to one ounce at a time. It would also allow people to grow up to two cannabis plants, and calls for the creation of a minimum of 40 retail marijuana stores across the state. The proposed legislation includes a 23% sales tax on legal cannabis, in addition to Rhode Island’s regular 7% sales tax.

Equivalent bills have been introduced in Rhode Island every year for the past seven years, and every year they’ve been held for further study, meaning they’ve never gotten to a vote. But Moffat said that this year it feels like marijuana legalization is finally getting taken seriously at the State House, in part because of Massachusetts’ vote to legalize. According to Moffat, legalization in Massachusetts but not Rhode Island would essentially funnel Rhode Island money into the Massachusetts economy.

“Whether you think it’s good or bad, the fact is Rhode Islanders are going to be able to cross the border into Massachusetts and buy marijuana there next year,” Moffat said. “Even if you hate this idea, it’s stupid to basically hand Massachusetts a bunch of jobs and revenue on a platter.”

One indicator that legalization is a real possibility this year is that there are more lobbyists than ever working both for and against legalization. One of these is former state Senator John Tassoni Jr. of Smithfield, who is lobbying against marijuana legalization. “I absolutely think it’s a gateway drug for people to try other things, I see it all the time,” said Tassoni, who also works for the Substance Use and Mental Health Leadership Council of Rhode Island. “That’s when they end up in my lap and I’m able to give them treatment.”

Statements like Tassoni’s frustrate Moffat, who says that lobbyists who oppose legalization continue to make arguments that have been proven false. Various studies, like a 1999 report from the Institute of Medicine, have proven that though marijuana users are more likely to use other drugs, marijuana does not actually cause people to use other drugs. The number of people who have used marijuana dwarfs the number of people who have used harder drugs like cocaine or heroin, indicating that it’s not a gateway drug. “It’s just been so obviously debunked,” said Moffat, “but they’re still out there saying it.”

Health concerns are frequently cited as another argument against legalization, but Moffat says that marijuana legalization will actually improve public health. Under the current system, people are forced to buy pot from illegal dealers, and don’t know what kind of product they’re really getting. In the past few months, there have been several cases in Massachusetts of marijuana laced with fentanyl, a deadly opiate.

“That’s what you get in a black market: tainted products,” Moffat said. “People should be able to go to a legal store where the product is tested, they have different options, and the environment itself is safe.”

Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Kilmartin doesn’t think that legalizing recreational marijuana will end the black market, according to Public Information Officer Amy Kempe. “Saying that legalization will eliminate any black market is just not an accurate statement,” she said. “There is a very robust black market that exists in Colorado.”

Like the gateway argument, Moffat said this assertion isn’t grounded in facts. “Consumers don’t want to go to the street corner and buy marijuana from an illegal dealer, just like we don’t want to go to the street corner and buy homemade gin from an illegal bootlegger,” he said. “Colorado did $1.3 billion of legal sales in 2016. How could that be evidence that the illegal market is expanding?”

Tassoni, who is working for former Rhode Island Representative Patrick Kennedy’s organization Smart Approaches to Marijuana, also opposes marijuana legalization because he thinks Rhode Island should focus on the opioid crisis. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Rhode Island had the fifth-highest per capita accidental overdose death rate in 2015, and Tassoni says that Rhode Island should solve that problem before legalizing a new drug with its own complications.

Chairman of the Rhode Island Senate Committee on Health and Human Services Joshua Miller has made fighting the opioid crisis one of his legislative priorities. He’s also the Senate’s primary sponsor of the Adult Use of Cannabis Act. When crafting the bill, Moffat said Miller insisted that a portion of the revenue from marijuana taxation go towards treatment for opioid abuse.

A study by the Arcview Group, a group of investors who finance marijuana ventures, predicts that if marijuana is legalized in Rhode Island, the state will be making $48 million a year in tax revenue by 2020. The revenue will cover the cost implementation of legalization, which Moffat predicts will cost between $3 and $5 million. This includes funding the Office of Cannabis Coordination, which would create different agencies that would do things like give licenses to retail marijuana stores and inspect the products being sold there. Of the remaining revenue, 35% will go towards substance abuse treatment to help the state’s opioid problem.

In crafting the Adult Use of Cannabis Act, Moffat has reached across the aisle to address opponents’ concerns. In addition to funding substance abuse treatment, the bill directs funds to police departments to enforce impaired driving laws, and also allows for towns to opt out of having marijuana stores through public referendums.

According to a recent poll by Public Policy Polling, 59% of Rhode Islanders are in favor of regulating and taxing marijuana like alcohol. If Rhode Island passes the Adult Use of Cannabis Act, it will become the ninth state in the country to legalize marijuana.

 

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