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Friday, February 24, 2017

Talking Pot

By Bob Plain in Rhode Island’s Future

marijuanaThe Adult Use of Cannabis Act, or the bill that would legalize marijuana in Rhode Island, was introduced in the state legislature Thursday by Senator Josh Miller and Rep. Scott Slater. Read the bill here.

It would allow adults over 21 years old to possess up to five ounces at home and to buy and/or transport up to one ounce at a time. 

People could grow up to two plants, and no more than three plants per household. 

It would allow retail stores, a minimum of 40, and only licensed growers could sell to those stores.

It’s the seventh year such a bill has been introduced, and with Massachusetts, Maine and six other states having ended pot prohibition, it’s got a better chance to pass than ever. 

A majority of Rhode Islanders, according to polls, and a majority of the House and Senate, according to activists, support legalization

But House Speaker Nick Mattiello and Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed in previous years have prevented the bill from coming up for a vote.

Jared Moffat, director of Regulate Rhode Island, was kind enough to walk me through the finer points of the bill.

RIF: The bill uses the word “cannabis” instead of “marijuana” – why? For example, why is it called the Adult Use of Cannabis Act, as opposed to the Adult Use of Marijuana Act?

JM: This is a minor change from last year, but many in the cannabis community feel that it is appropriate to call it by its scientific name. It conveys a more serious tone, which is appropriate for a piece of legislation like this.

RIF: If passed, will people all of a sudden be smoking pot in public parks?

JM: No. Public smoking of marijuana will remain illegal, punishable by a fine.

RIF: What would change? Here’s my takeaway: anyone 21 or older could have up to five ounces at home, and they can buy and/or transport up to one ounce. They can grow 2 plants, with a $50 state fee for each one. And there would likely be retail stores. Any big picture items I’m missing?

JM: You’ve got most of it. There would be four kinds of cannabis business establishments: cultivators, processors (which make infused products, such as oils and/or edibles), retailers, and testing facilities. The law would create an Office of Cannabis Coordination to oversee all aspects of implementation, regulation, and enforcement. A Cannabis Advisory Board would provide oversight, study the system, and recommend changes. Testing for potency and contaminants of all products would be mandatory. Sales of edible and infused products would be delayed for 18 months to give regulators adequate time to establish regulations. Advertising, packaging, and labeling would all be strictly regulated.

RIF: What’s the difference between cultivating cannabis and processing cannabis? Why are they regulated differently? Can a cultivator process, can a processor cultivate?

JM: A cultivator grows the plant, while a processor creates infused products, such as edibles or oils.

RIF: As for stores, there may well be many of them. There’s no cap on the number of retail stores? So nothing other than the free market to prevent them from opening everywhere? In fact, the bill requires the state to approve as many as 40 qualifying stores and 25 qualifying processing facilities?

JM: There is no cap on the number of retail stores. Other states with legal marijuana do not have specific limits. The market should dictate the number of businesses. Local towns could, by public referendum, ban cannabis establishments, and they could also impose zoning restrictions. The bill requires that there be a minimum of 40 retail stores, 25 cultivation facilities, 20 processors, and 10 testing facilities (provided enough qualified applicants exist).

RIF: Could a town, in spite of state law, still stop a cannabis retail store from setting up shop on Main Street?

JM: Yes, through a referendum banning stores or through zoning ordinances.

RIF: Would growing outdoors, commercially or recreationally, be legal?  

JM: The bill would allow for outdoor commercial cultivation if the Office of Cannabis Coordination develops regulations to enable that. Adults who cultivate their own cannabis at home must ensure that it is not viewable from the public (so you can’t grow in your front yard) and in an enclosed, locked location. These are the same requirements for medical marijuana patients who cultivate their own cannabis.

RIF: From the bill [“The office of cannabis coordination shall determine an annual registration fee, not to exceed ten thousand dollars ($10,000) for cannabis processors, retailers, and cannabis testing facilities and not to exceed twenty thousand ($20,000) for cannabis cultivation facilities.” Plus as much as a $5,000 permit fee to grow for retail market, correct? Why make such a high bar to enter the regulated cannabis industry?

JM: This is not out of the norm compared to laws in other states, and the bill specifies an upper limit, so the fees could be lower than the amounts listed here. Regulation and enforcement of the system costs money, and initially before taxes are being collected, these fees will provide a source of revenue to fund implementation.

RIF: A 23% sales tax?

JM: It would be 23% plus the normal 7% sales tax, so 30% total. This is close to Colorado’s effective rate (~29%). Washington’s is 37%.

RIF: So a $200 ounce would cost the consumer $260?

JM: Yes, a $200 ounce would have a $60 tax.

RIF: And the state would split that 5 ways, right? 50% to the general fund, 35% to substance abuse treatment, 5% to law enforcement for sober driving efforts and 10% to the city or town that hosts the transaction?

JM: First revenue to fund regulation of the system would be appropriated (probably somewhere between $3 million and $5 million each year). Then the remainder would be divided according to those percentages you listed.

RIF: Possession of up to 5 ounces would be legal at home, and people (21 yrs old or older) could buy or travel with up to an ounce. Why are their limits? And why can one have 5 ounces at home, but only travel with 1 ounce?

JM: Initially, it’s crucial that nothing undermines the legal market. Possession limits are a way to ensure there aren’t people having large amounts and selling it in the illicit market.

RIF: The bill would allow people 21 yrs and older to grow 2 plants, but no more than that. Can two roommates grow 4 plants in one house? Can three roommates grow 6, and so forth and so on?

JM: There can be no more than three mature cannabis plants per dwelling unit.

RIF: What happens if someone gets caught with more than five ounces at home, or more than one ounce in their car? What happens if someone gets caught with more than three plants?

JM: If someone exceeds the allowed limit, then it is a criminal offense. There would be a fine for every plant grown above the limit. If there are going to be limits, there have to be some consequences for violating them. That said, I’d like see this be a non-criminal matter up to a certain point. There may be more discussion on this part of the bill.

RIF: Why are the $50 tags from the Dept of Business Regulation necessary for private individuals to grow? Anyone can raise chickens and sell the eggs from their driveway, but you need a tracking device to grow a pot plant?

JM: Again, this is to protect against diversion into the illicit market. Plant tags are a way to keep track of what is being grown legally and what is not. Regulators have strongly pushed for any home growing to utilize the new plant tagging system as a way to keep a check on the products being grown. It’s not something we really support, but compromise is necessary to get the bill passed.

RIF: Growing outside would be legal, so long as it’s enclosed, locked and neighbors can’t see it? Does this include greenhouses?

JM: Potentially, yes, I would think so — as long as it’s locked and not viewable from public.

RIF: Does this bill spare the so-called “bathtub gin” market? Can private individuals buy and sell cannabis with other private individuals? Anything in the bill prevent a private individual from advertising their cannabis on Craigslist? Or RI Future, for that matter?

JM: No, private individuals cannot sell cannabis, only registered retail facilities. Advertising would be strictly limited, and could only include the companies’ websites, listings in phone books, signage outside the businesses’ facilities, and sponsorship of charitable events. Sadly, no, RI Future would not be able to provide advertising space for marijuana businesses.

RIF: Under this bill, could a landlord prevent a tenant from legally growing cannabis? How about smoking it?

JM: Landlords could prevent cultivation and smoking but not possession or consumption by non-smoked means.

RIF: Why draw a legal distinction between smoking and vaping? [“(11) Smoke means to heat to at least the point of combustion, causing plant material to burn. It does not include vaporizing, which means heating below the point of combustion and resulting in a vapor or mist.”]

JM: Partly because of the distinction in the previous question. Smoking creates more of an odor and could raise secondhand smoke concerns. Landlords could prevent smoking in their properties, but not non-smoked consumption, which would include vaporizing.

RIF: Anything I’m forgetting to ask?

JM: I’m sure there’s much more we could discuss! There are strict regulations on edibles, for example, which include a mandatory product review process and a limit of one serving of THC for each separable edible item. But I can’t think of anything else that’s super important.

Bob Plain is the editor/publisher of Rhode Island's Future. Previously, he's worked as a reporter for several different news organizations both in Rhode Island and across the country.