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A senior senator from Rhode Island said lawmakers were “very close” to reaching agreement on a bill to legalize marijuana that could be considered in a special session this fall.

Senate Speaker Dominick Ruggerio (R) has been invited to provide an update on ongoing negotiations on the reform proposal since lawmakers adjourned the session. He told WPRI-TV that while there are still outstanding issues to be resolved, he believes legalization will be undertaken before the end of the year.

“We have had people working on this issue since we left the session this year,” he said.

“We sent a bill – which we think is a very good bill – to the House before we left in June,” the senator said, referring to a legalization bill his chamber approved in. June. “They are working on this legislation with some members of the House right now.”

A special session has yet to be called, but Ruggerio said he believed a deal on cannabis reform would be reached in time to bring lawmakers back to State House in the coming months.

“We hope we can make cannabis. Were very close. We are making progress, but we are not there yet, ”he said. “There are a few hurdles they’re tackling right now, and we’ll see how that plays out.”

It remains to be seen whether the negotiated legalization bill that will ultimately be produced will satisfy progressive advocates and lawmakers, some of whom have rallied to a reform agenda that emphasizes the need for bold social equity provisions.

Negotiators worked to reconcile competing proposals from the House, Senate and Governor Daniel McKee (D). While the bills each contain elements intended to address the harms of criminalizing marijuana, the coalition led by Reclaim Rhode Island says they are insufficient. Supporters and supportive lawmakers have presented specific elements they want to see incorporated, such as setting aside half of commercial cannabis licenses for communities most affected by prohibition.

“We cannot reverse the harms of the War on Drugs, but we can begin to fix it by moving to automatic deregistration and waiving all related fines, fees and court debts,” said Representative Karen Alzate (D ), President of Rhode Island. The Black and Latino Legislative Caucus said earlier this month. “This bold legalization plan gives us the chance to turn a new leaf for the State of the Ocean, and it is time we seized it.”

Ruggerio, for his part, said he felt the legalization bill that was approved in the Senate contained “very strict social justice provisions” and that the write-off provision was “as close to automatic as possible “.

Reclaim Rhode Island isn’t the only group pushing lawmakers to work quickly to pass legalization. He is part of a coalition of 10 civil rights and drug policy reform groups, including the Rhode Island chapters of the ACLU and NAACP, which recently called on lawmakers to move forward with enacting marijuana reform in the state before the end of 2021.

House Speaker Joe Shekarchi (D) said in July that although there is no consensus yet between lawmakers and the governor on a deal to legalize marijuana, it is still a “doable” question and would be a priority if negotiations were successful this summer and a special session convened this fall.

The speaker said this month that bicameral negotiators “continue to have productive discussions on the important policy implications associated with the legalization of personal marijuana, including, but not limited to, some of the questions raised today at the press conference “by activists and lawmakers. .

Rep Scott Slater (R), for his part, recently told Marijuana Moment that “things are still where they were” before the end of the session. The lawmakers “are trying to find a reconciliation between my bill, that of the Senate and that of the governor.”

The summer meetings have been “mostly informal” so far, the representative said. “I think we can get there before next year. It won’t be perfect, and I’m sure it’s a work in progress.

Ruggerio said in July that he was not disappointed that the House had not yet brought forward legalization legislation and that “what we really wanted to do was send it in and have them reviewed” when his chamber passed his cannabis reform measure.

Shekarchi, for his part, has previously said he believes reform is “inevitable”.

A key disagreement between the House, Senate, and governor’s office concerns regulatory authority over marijuana. Ruggerio was pressed on the issue in a recent interview and said members of his chamber agree that “a separate commission is the way forward in this regard.”

The House and McKee, on the other hand, want the program to be managed by the State Department of Business Regulation (DBR). Ruggerio noted that “it was difficult to negotiate on a bill when the House bill really did not arrive until late in the session.”

Senate Majority Leader Mike McCaffrey (D) was also recently asked about provisions allowing local municipalities to refuse to allow marijuana businesses to operate in their area. He said “once the legislation is passed and whatever form is adopted, communities have the option to opt out.”

“They have the option to opt out if the community does not want to participate,” he said. “It’s their decision, however, they are not getting the funds that would come from sales in this community. “

The Majority Leader also noted that neighboring states like Connecticut and Massachusetts have passed legalization, giving the legislature extra momentum to continue state reform.

Shekarchi, meanwhile, said in July he had no intention of letting regional pressure dictate the timeline for when Rhode Island enacted a policy change. Social equity, license fees, labor agreements and home growing arrangements are among the outstanding issues that need to be addressed, the speaker said.

The House Finance Committee held a hearing on Slater’s legalization measure in June.

The governor previously told reporters that if he supported legalization it was “not one of my highest priorities,” adding that “we are not in contention with Connecticut or Massachusetts on this issue.” .

“I think we have to get it right,” he said, pointing to ongoing discussions with the House and the Senate.

The House finance committee discussed the governor’s proposal to end the ban in an earlier hearing in April.

The governor’s and rulers’ legalization plans are particularly different from the proposal former Governor Gina Raimondo (D) included in her budget last year. Before stepping down to join the Biden administration as secretary of commerce, she called for legalization through a state-run model.

McKee gave a first glimpse of his take on reform in January, saying “it’s time for [legalization] happens “and that he’s” more inclined to an entrepreneurial strategy out there to let it go that way. “

Shekarchi, meanwhile, said he was “absolutely” open to the idea of ​​legalizing cannabis and also leaned towards privatization.

Late last year, the Senate Finance Committee began a preliminary review of legalization ahead of the 2021 session, with lawmakers generally accepting reform as inevitable. “I certainly think we will act on the issue, whether it is more private or more state-owned,” said at the time Sen. Ryan Pearson (D), who is now chair of the panel.

Meanwhile, the governor signed a landmark bill in July to allow safe consumption sites where people could use illicit drugs under medical supervision and receive resources for treatment. Harm reduction advocates say it would prevent overdose deaths and help de-stigmatize substance abuse. Rhode Island is the first state to allow facilities.

The Senate Judiciary Committee also held a hearing in March on legislation that would end criminal penalties for possession of small amounts of drugs and replace them with a fine of $ 100.

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Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.

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