Next Up, Rhode Island?

Rhode Island

So thinks Rob Kampia, Executive Director of Marijuana Policy Project. In a recent interview with MJINews, Kampia indicated that he sees the potential for plenty of activity for legalization advocates and marijuana investors, but the number one spot to watch is Rhode Island. Furthermore, he sees recreational legalization occurring, for the first time, by action of the state legislature. With state legislative action, legalization could take hold in other areas of the country much faster than through the ballot initiative process, which requires an election.

The real incentive for recreational legalization seems to be economic. As measured in October 2014, Rhode Island suffers from a seasonally adjusted unemployment rate of 7.4 percent, one of the highest in the country. The non-profit organization, Open Doors, has estimated that annual tax revenue from legalized marijuana in Rhode Island could range from $21.5 to $82 million. Even numbers at the lower end of this range could bring considerable relief to a cash-strapped economy.

In 2014, Rep. Edith Ajello, D-Providence, and Joshua Miller, D-Cranston, introduced a bill modeled on Colorado’s law, but the legislature failed to consider it before the session ended on June 21. According to Regulate Rhode Island, the group backing the legislation, and MPP, The Marijuana Regulation, Control, and Taxation Act would have allowed individuals 21 and older to possess and cultivate limited amounts of cannabis. It would also have directed the Department of Revenue to license and regulate marijuana producers and 10 retail marijuana stores.

Many expect the legislation to be introduced again shortly after the 2015 session begins in January, but this time with a broader coalition of supporters, including Elizabeth A. Comery, a retired Providence police officer, and Dr. James Crowley, a physician and former president of the Rhode Island Medical Society.

Since Rhode Island already permits medical marijuana sales to licensed patients, the legal infrastructure necessary to implement a plan of taxation and regulation may already be in place. The later wave of states to embrace recreational legalization may be able to benefit from the regulatory experience of early states such as Colorado.

For students of process, though, the most interesting wrinkle in Rhode Island’s situation is the possibility that legalization might occur through the ordinary legislative process, rather than through a ballot initiative. It means that change can happen more quickly; it lends a solid air of legitimacy to the law-making process that may withstand challenges better; and it prevents the political theater of lawmakers attempting to subvert the wishes of constituents, as appears to be happening in the Alaska legislature in the wake of legalization approval in that state.

Were other state legislators to begin to see that recreational legalization is not political suicide, they might actually take to doing the job of governing that they were elected to do. In the meantime, however, most of the progress on the recreational side will probably continue to come through petition drives and ballot initiatives in the collection of other states on Kampia’s watch list, including Arizona, Maine, California, Massachusetts and Nevada. That puts a lot off until 2016, and, as advocates and investors know, almost anything can happen in two years.

Anne Wallace is a New York lawyer who writes extensively on legal and business issues. She also teaches law and business writing at the college and professional level. Anne graduated from Fordham Law School and Wellesley College.

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