By Addison Herron-Wheeler

Rhode Island has joined the ranks of legal states across the U.S., making it the 19th state to take the plunge. According to WPRI-TV, Governor Dan McKee signed a bill into law in May to legalize marijuana, expunge past convictions, and set up a new framework for sales and taxation at state-sanctioned stores.

“This bill successfully incorporates our priorities of making sure cannabis legalization is equitable, controlled, and safe,” McKee says, claiming legalization is “a win for our state both socially and economically.”

Senator Josh Miller, a Democrat, is an advocate for legal cannabis. “The reality is that prohibition does not stop cannabis use,” says Miller. “With this bill, we are ending prohibition in a way that is safe, keeps revenue in Rhode Island, and is as fair and equitable as we can possibly make it.”

Recreational cannabis sales will start in December, and folks are now legally allowed to grow up to six plants at home, with three at a time mature. Cannabis users can possess up to one ounce in public, 10 ounces at home. 

State Representative Scott Slater, D-Providence, the lead House sponsor of the bill, spoke about how he appreciates that initial cannabis licenses will go to existing dispensaries, and the rest will go to low-income folks and co-ops. 

“The starting line isn’t the same for people in poor, urban, and minority communities, and they deserve support to ensure they get the full benefit of participating in legalization,” he says. 

The bill will also help folks who have prior cannabis charges. The “automatic” method of expungement now legal in the state will give courts until July 1, 2024, to expunge records, and those who want their records cleared sooner can petition the state. 

State Representative Leonela Felix, D-Pawtucket, helped push for this expedient expungement process. While promoting the legislation, she admitted to having a 2006 drug arrest that she had gotten expunged as part of a state program. 

“I didn’t want my community to have to go through that burden,” Felix says. “Especially when we’re going to be receiving a lot of revenue from the legalization of cannabis.”

Because of her own experience, she was committed to pushing for expungement across the state for all those who have only committed possession crimes. 

“I sought to bring my experience in dealing with expungement and having my record cleaned, the limitations I had when I had my criminal record, and the opportunities that I had afterward,” Felix said. (In addition to being an elected official, Felix is also an attorney who works for the city of Providence.)

Like other legal states, Rhode Island can now look forward to a major budget boost. While it’s unclear exactly how much money legal cannabis will bring to the state, a fiscal note prepared along with the original draft of the bill estimated that the 2023-24 fiscal year would bring the state $14 million in revenue and $2.5 million for cities and towns. Though this estimated that sales would start in October instead of December, it is thought to be not that far off. 

With all this new revenue, at least $5 million will go towards the cannabis program administration, including two dozen new employees. It is yet to be determined how to spend the rest of the money, but with a 7% sales tax in place, a new 10% cannabis tax, and 3% local tax to the town or city that houses the store, and high revenues estimated, there is definitely revenue to be had. 

Next year will be a landmark cannabis sales year for the newly legal state, and we can also predict the new industry will be great for tourism and economic growth.