Providence, R.I. — Weeks after legalizing the sale of marijuana to sick people, lawmakers have voted to explore how much Rhode Island might collect in revenue if it were to make all sales of marijuana legal and impose a “sin tax” of $35 per ounce.
During the General Assembly’s aborted rush to adjournment Friday, the Senate approved a resolution — introduced earlier the same day — to create a nine-member special commission to study a swath of issues surrounding marijuana.
Among them: “The experience of individuals and families sentenced for violating marijuana laws … The experience of states and European countries, such as California, Massachusetts and the Netherlands, which have decriminalized the sale and use of marijuana.”
The sponsors of the eleventh-hour measure — which requires no further action — include Senators Joshua Miller, D-Cranston; Leo Blais, R-Coventry; Rhoda Perry, D-Providence; Charles Levesque, D-Portsmouth, and Susan Sosnowski, D-South Kingstown.
In a brief interview Wednesday, Miller said the resolution was sparked by the referendum-driven move to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana in Massachusetts, and by what he perceives as “a national trend towards decriminalization.” In November 2008, Massachusetts voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot initiative to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana, making getting caught with less than an ounce of pot punishable by a civil fine of $100.
Asked why he waited until what was to be the last day of the session to introduce the measure, Miller said he and his fellow sponsors felt it was “very important” for this study to be “defined as an issue” completely separate and apart from the passage — over Governor Carcieri’s veto — of legislation allowing the creation of state-regulated dispensaries to sell marijuana for medicinal use.
Miller said it also “took that long for it to be taken seriously.”
The resolution creates a “Special Senate Commission to Study the Prohibition of Marijuana” made up of “elected members of the Rhode Island Senate, local law enforcement officials, physicians, nurses, social workers, academic leaders in the field of addiction studies, advocates or patients in the state’s medical marijuana program, advocates working in the field of prisoner reentry, economists, and members of the general public.”
The measure poses a number of specific questions for study, among them: “Whether and to what extent Rhode Island youth have access to marijuana despite current laws prohibiting its use. … Whether adults’ use of marijuana has decreased since marijuana became illegal in Rhode Island in 1918. … Whether the current system of marijuana prohibition has created violence in the state of Rhode Island against users or among those who sell marijuana. … Whether the proceeds from the sales of marijuana are funding organized crime, including drug cartels. … Whether those who sell marijuana on the criminal market may also sell other drugs, thus increasing the chances that youth will use other illegal substances.”
The resolution also cites questions about the “dangers associated with marijuana resulting from it being sold on the criminal market, including if it is ever contaminated or laced with other drugs.”
The panel has until Jan. 31, 2010, to report its findings and recommendations to the Senate, though it would stay alive through Jan. 31, 2014.
Miller, a bar owner who says he does not use illegal drugs — or even drink liquor more than a few times a year — said he is not hoping or expecting any specific outcome. “I am more open-minded that that,” he said. “I am hoping to react to the best research and data we can get out of looking at it.”
A year ago, Carcieri vetoed a joint House and Senate call for a study of the wisdom of creating state-regulated marijuana dispensaries.
But “since this was only a Senate resolution, it does not come to the governor for his approval,” Carcieri spokeswoman Amy Kempe said.
In February, one of the cosponsors, pharmacist Leo Blais, proposed a bill — The Sensible State Marijuana Policy Act — that would have decriminalized the possession of an ounce or less of marijuana, reducing it to a civil offense for which anyone age 18 or older would face a $100 fine and forfeiture of the marijuana. The bill never made it out of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
As of Wednesday, no person or group had formally applied for the license to run the first of the three marijuana dispensaries allowed by the so-called “compassion centers” bill.
Both the House and Senate have each passed, for the second year in a row, their own versions (S39 and H5007) of a bill to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug crimes.
But no one version of the measure has yet cleared both chambers, in this year when the House and Senate went on hiatus, with no certain return date, and no final action on a bevy of high-profile bills.