PROVIDENCE – Making small amounts of marijuana legal, Pawtucket Sen. Donna Nesselbush said Wednesday, “will rob drug dealers of one of their reasons for being.”
That is one of the reasons she gave for introducing the Marijuana Control, Regulation and Taxation Act, which would allow marijuana to be grown legally by wholesalers and sold to retailers who would in turn be allowed to sell up to one ounce to anyone 21 years of age or older.
The second-term Democrat set out her argument for the bill in a series of questions.
“Marijuana, like alcohol, has long been with us and is widely used,” Nesselbush told reporters at an afternoon news conference. “The question is: how are we going to deal with it?
“Will the state determine the time, place and manner or will we leave it up to criminals to sell it anywhere at any time to anyone?
“Will the state act boldly to create a legitimate industry that creates jobs and generates legitimate tax revenue or will we continue to unwittingly support gangs and cartels?
“Are we going to spend the hard-earned tax dollars from hard-working taxpayers to punish and incarcerate individuals for consuming a substance that appears to be less harmful than alcohol?”
“Our current marijuana prohibition is not working as a matter of public policy, and when public policy is not working and is defective, it is incumbent upon public officials to act,” the senator asserted. “Taxing and regulating the sale of marijuana would reduce crime, weaken gangs and cartels, and allow our hard-working law enforcement officials to focus on more serious and violent crimes.”
Noting that Rhode Island was the only state to refuse to ratify the 18th Amendment that instituted Prohibition, Providence Rep. Edith Ajello likened the laws against marijuana to “one of the biggest public policy blunders in our nation’s history. Demand for the product remained, as did the supply. Despite its good intentions, it created more problems than it solvcd.”
The General Assembly voted to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana last year and Gov. Lincoln Chafee allowed it to become law without his signature. That law is set to take effect April 1.
The Nesselbush bill would assess a $50 per ounce tax on the wholesaler. When sold at retail, the purchaser would have to pay the state’s 7 percent sales tax.
Asked how she thought her Pawtucket constituents would feel about her introducing a marijuana legalization bill, Nesselbush said, “my community in Pawtucket is working class and my roots are working class. I think the city of Pawtucket and taxpayers are hurting. And a proposal that makes sense – the studies seem to indicate that this is not going to increase the use of marijuana, it’s actually going to decrease the use, especially by youth that we all fear. By regulating it just like alcohol, hopefully we will keep the substance out of the hands of youth and create some tax revenue to take some of the burden away from property tax payers and income tax payers.
Ajello said she believes that the regulation and taxation of marijuana is no longer “such a liberal, wild-haired idea.”
Ajello pointed to the fact that, in surveys, 80 percent of high school students consistently say that marijuana is “easy” or “very easy” to find in their schools. By putting the sale in the hands of a store owner who would have a license to lose and criminal penalties to face, it could make it harder for youth to get their hands on marijuana.
Attorney General Peter Kilmartin is not in favor of the bill.
“Marijuana’s legality should begin and end with legitimate health issues, he said in a written statement to The Times. “Legal and criminal issues aside, the state still does not properly regulate medical marijuana, so I question its ability to regulate marijuana generally.”
Former state representative and Congressman Patrick Kennedy issued a statement in opposition to the bill in his former home state. Kennedy, who has become an advocate for mental health issues, issued a statement that said, "Legalizing marijuana is an extreme answer to our marijuana problem. We need a third way between legalization and incarceration.”
Kennedy, who is a co-founder of Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM) and author of the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act, added, "Legalization is a threat to public health and runs counter to mental health parity."
Michelle McKenzie, who identified herself as “a mom” and a public health and addiction researcher, noted that over the last 20 years “we have reduced the level of teen cigarette use by 50 percent” due to “strict regulations, a commitment to restricting sales to minors and comprehensive education programs.”
Ajello said the bill allows even more restrictions on advertising than is permitted for cigarette advertising, but a store that sells marijuana would be allowed to post a sign advertising that fact.
Mason Tvert, director of communications for the Marijuana Policy Project, the nation’s largest marijuana policy organization, applauded the introduction of the bill.
“State and federal lawmakers from around the nation are bringing forward proposals to regulate marijuana like alcohol, and they are being met with more public support than ever before,” he said. “Most Americans are fed up with laws that punish adults simply for using a product that is objectively less harmful than alcohol. The bill introduced today in Rhode Island presents a smarter, more responsible approach to marijuana.”