PROVIDENCE, R.I. — While a committee of House lawmakers on Tuesday advanced a bill that would put off marijuana legalization for at least another year in favor of additional study, a crowd of nearly 200 people gathered at the State House steps demanding a vote on a competing proposal to make the drug legal.
“I’d rather be defeated in a real vote than ignored for another year,” said Matthew Schweich, director of state campaigns for the Marijuana Policy Project.
For seven years lawmakers have debated proposals to legalize marijuana. None has ever seen a vote. Schweich equated the House Judiciary Committee’s unanimous passage of a bill creating a study commission on marijuana legalization to “a defense of the status quo with a ribbon on top.” At a minimum, lawmakers should vote on both the study commission bill and the marijuana legalization bill so voters know where their elected leaders stand, he said.
Some have suggested that the creation of a study commission alone would signal that the issue finally has momentum. The bill next heads to the House floor.
“Speaker [Nicholas] Mattiello supports a House-Senate study commission during the off-session,” House spokesman Larry Berman said. “He has talked to many of his members and there is no big push for legalization this year. There are still many issues that need to be carefully reviewed.”
But the message on Tuesday from those who support legalization was this: a study commission is not enough.
“The people that run this building don’t always feel they’re accountable to the people,” said Regulate Rhode Island Director Jared Moffat, who singled out General Assembly leadership for “standing in the way” of the nearly 60 percent of Rhode Islanders who said they support marijuana legalization in a poll earlier this year.
The House version of the legalization bill was sponsored by 25 of 75 representatives. The study commission bill was sponsored by 18 representatives. It also has the support of three top officials in Governor Gina Raimondo’s administration who authored a letter of support.
The action in Rhode Island takes place against a backdrop of increased support across New England for marijuana legalization. On Tuesday, Democratic lawmakers in Connecticut unveiled a budget proposal that includes marijuana legalization as one of several measures to help close a projected $2-billion budget gap.
Sam Tracy, director of the Connecticut Coalition to Regulate Marijuana, said the plan which creates recreational marijuana shops was estimated by lawmakers to generate $60 million in tax revenue in the first full year and $180 million in the second year.
The Hartford Courant, however, reported that Democratic lawmakers do not have enough support in their caucus to approve legalization and the issue was added to the budget proposal to drive debate.
In Vermont, the legislature recently passed a bill that makes marijuana legal but initially includes no retail sales plan. Instead, it calls for a study commission to make recommendations on commercial pot shops. That bill is expected to land on the governor’s desk within “a couple of weeks,” said Matt Simon, the political director for Vermont’s campaign.
Sen. Joshua Miller, D-Cranston, a lead sponsor on the Rhode Island legalization bill, said he has “about three alternatives already in my back pocket to get this done one way or another,” referencing the approach Vermont has taken.
“I won’t give up on this until the last night of session,” Miller said. “More and more people are [legalizing marijuana] because they see the dollar signs, and I’m fine with that.”
“A lot can happen in the final few weeks of a legislative session in Rhode Island,” Schweich added.