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The Great Marijuana Debate

Both sides weigh in on the pros and cons of bringing legalized recreational marijuana to Rhode Island

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In November, voters in four states decided that they were ready for legalized recreational marijuana: California, Nevada, Maine and, most significantly to Rhode Islanders, Massachusetts. They’ll be joining four other states that have lifted their pot prohibitions, but this is more than just another signal that the tide is shifting in regards to how the American public views marijuana. With Bay State voters giving legal weed a thumbs up, that tide is splashing up against our own border. It’s been four years since marijuana was decriminalized in the state, and medical marijuana has been around since 2006 (the state currently has three compassion centers), but for years proponents have struck out in their efforts to bring recreational marijuana, and the economic and social boons that come with it, to the Ocean State. In February, a bill sponsored by Representative Scott Slater of Providence and Senator Josh Miller of Cranston was introduced in the state legislature and hits on the same pro-legalization talking points from previous years – increased tax revenues, job creation, and the benefits to public health and safety. Now, thanks to Massachusetts’ decision, they’ve got another argument to make; if RI doesn’t act now, Mass will reap the economic rewards of its citizens and ours. With April 20 being an unofficial holiday in cannabis culture, we decided to take a look at both sides of the debate.

A Pot Primer
Since 2013, anyone in Rhode Island over the age of 18 caught with up to an ounce of marijuana would be slapped with a $150 fine, but no criminal charge. However, a third offense within 18 months would result in a $500 fine and up to a year of jail time. Basically, being caught with small amounts for personal use results in the equivalent of a minor traffic violation.

Possessing more than an ounce, operating a vehicle while high or growing marijuana – unless licensed to do so for medicinal purposes – is all still very much against the law.

Up in Massachusetts, legalization has been an evolving process since the November election. As of December 15, it is legal for Massachusetts’ residents to be in possession of up to 10 ounces and grow 12 plants in their primary household. The sale of marijuana-related accessories, such as bongs, pipes and growing equipment, is now legal as well. Retail operations, where residents can purchase marijuana products won’t be up and running until January 2018 at the earliest.

Under the proposed Rhode Island Cannabis Regulation, Control and Taxation Act, marijuana would become legal. As defined by this legislation, an adult of 21 years or older would be legally permitted to buy and transport up to one ounce of marijuana – in their own homes they would be allowed to possess up to five ounces – and any cannabis infused products so long as they don’t exceed 300mg of THC, marijuana’s main psychoactive component. Individuals would be allowed to grow plants for their own personal use, and retail businesses would be permitted to sell regulated and taxed marijuana products. Driving under the influence will still be illegal, as will smoking in public.

The bill would create an Office of Cannabis Coordination to oversee the implementation and enforcement of law in a legal marijuana market. This office would review and approve edible products to ensure products aren’t being produced that will appeal directly to children, as well as to test for contaminants and potency. Taxes, after costs associated with the new laws, would be split up with 50% going into the state general fund, 10% divided among municipalities based on the businesses operating within those towns, 5% going to law enforcement to combat driving while impaired, and 35% to the Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals for substance abuse treatment and youth prevention initiatives. Individual towns would be able to add additional regulations as long as they’re in line with the state law or, with a majority referendum, could vote to bar marijuana businesses from operating in their town.

Time to Legalize
In January, Public Policy Polling found that overall, 59% of Rhode Islanders were in favor of legalizing marijuana, with 36% opposed and 4% unsure. Within Providence, those numbers were 62% for, 31% against and 8% unsure.

“This isn’t just Providence; the whole state supports this,” says Jared Moffat, Director of Regulate Rhode Island, a coalition founded in 2013 to advocate for legalizing marijuana. “The polling wasn’t particularly surprising… but it’s something that we wanted to highlight. The support is here in Rhode Island, and it’s not just in one part of the state.”

For proponents, the big reasons to end marijuana prohibition are tax revenues, job creation, and public health and safety. Tax revenues tend to be the one that gets the most attention, thanks to numbers like the $199 million in taxes and fees that the marijuana industry brought in for Colorado in 2016. All-in-all, Colorado’s marijuana industry tallied up $1.3 billion last year – $875 million from recreational marijuana, $438 million from medical.

Looking at job creation, the Marijuana Policy Project reports that the legal industry has created 18,000 jobs in Colorado since marijuana became legal in January 2014. It’s speculated that California, which voted to legalize in November alongside Massachusetts, could see 20,000 jobs in the Sacramento area alone. It’s too early to tell whether or not Massachusetts will prove to be a marijuana industry boom state, but from Moffat’s perspective waiting to find out isn’t going to do Rhode Island any favors.

“The majority of our state’s population lives within 15-20 minutes of the Massachusetts border,” he says. “If we don’t set up shop in Rhode Island, we’re going to risk our people doing business is MA and putting money in the MA tax coffers. This isn’t just about tax revenue. The new jobs and business are just as important.” According to Forbes, studies indicate that by 2020, the legal marijuana industry will create more than a quarter of a million jobs.

Then there are the public health and safety elements of lifting the prohibition, which Moffat says is Regulate Rhode Island’s top priority in advocating for legalization. “Illegal drug dealers have no incentives to follow laws, settle disputes in a peaceful way or keep marijuana out of the hands of children,” says Moffat. “These are the things that happen without oversight. You’re forcing the market underground and it creates these kinds of situations. We need more control and regulation over the process.”

There are also the many Rhode Islanders with criminal records for marijuana infractions, which can be an obstacle to opportunities, or the fact that despite similar usage statistics, African Americans in Rhode Island are three times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white citizens.

“Within communities of color we see marijuana as a gateway drug to broken lives, families and communities,” says James Vincent, president of the Providence branch of the NAACP. Criminal records relating to marijuana offenses have created barriers to jobs and other opportunities for success. Regarding decriminalization, Vincent sees it as a slippery slope. “Decriminalization doesn’t help people too poor to pay the fine,” he says. “We’re trying to make [Rhode Island] a state that gives second chances for people to provide for themselves. When you have a record, it affects your ability to have that second chance and you never really get out of the criminal justice system. You’re in that world perpetually.” Under the proposed bill, citizens with marijuana convictions will be able to file to have those records expunged.

What’s the Rush?
Not everyone is ready to follow Massachusetts’ lead on this. Mike Cerullo is a licensed psychotherapist and is one of the founders of What’s the Rush, RI? As advocates for evidence based marijuana policy in Rhode Island, What’s the Rush’s biggest argument against the current bill is that there hasn’t been enough time to really analyze what’s happened in states that have adopted legalization.

“If we did it the way the experts who look at it from a purely objective, analytical perspective, we’re really not going to see what the behavioral changes are until 2020 because you need to look at a number of things,” he explains. Those things being market and consumer behavior patterns, as well as long-term health effects.

In particular, Cerullo and What’s the Rush are concerned about the impact of legalized marijuana on youth, pointing to a marijuana industry that reminds them too much of the Big Tobacco that used deceptive messaging to distract from health risks and appeal to a younger demographic. He says, “The messaging is awful. The messaging has been ‘It’s no big deal. It’s medicine so it’s gotta be harmless. It’s not against the law, no big deal.’ The messaging underneath all of that is instant gratification and avoidance.”

What’s the Rush is of the opinion that regulators should approach marijuana the same way they do tobacco, not alcohol. “What’s to argue that regulating it like alcohol isn’t going to just increase the level of abuse that THC is going to produce?” Cerullo offers, adding that unlike alcohol, marijuana is trickier for individuals to gauge. This is especially true of the edibles market, in particular with people who might not know what they’re getting into. Unlike smoking or vaping, ingesting marijuana takes longer to kick in, and with that comes the chance that someone who doesn’t know any better eating more than they can handle.

Cerullo agrees with proponents that Rhode Islanders with marijuana-related criminal records should have those expunged, but wonders why that couldn’t have happened independently of the proposed legalization bill. Similarly, What’s the Rush thinks that it should be easier for municipalities to opt out of legalization should the state vote in favor of it.

So Who’s Right?

Cerullo cites a study released by Smart Approaches to Marijuana in October that shows increases in teen usage in both Colorado and Washington since legalization. On the other hand, Moffat points to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s most recent report on the matter, which states that for adults and adolescents the numbers haven’t changed since legalization. On yet a third hand, in December the Washington Post cited data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health that showed “teen use fell sharply in Colorado” in 2014 and 2015, and that during the same time, teen usage was down in most states.

That’s kind of the trick of it. There are numbers to support either side of any argument, and the moral questions raised by advocates and opponents shouldn’t be taken lightly. Will legalizing marijuana in Rhode Island sell out our kids and our minority communities to make a buck? Or will it make things safer by curbing the black market, offering a real second chance to people in the form of expungements and see a new revenue stream making its way into our communities. Ultimately it’s up to the General Assembly to decide.