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Anticipation for legal recreational cannabis in Rhode Island is building. Lawmakers say they expect to be ready to introduce a bill to the legislation in early 2022.  Even if a bill is introduced soon, it could get stuck in the queue, killed in the Senate, or otherwise struck down. So, will Rhode Island cannabis become a reality – and if so, when? 

Zooming in on the current Rhode Island cannabis laws

Rhode Island laws have historically been tough on cannabis. For example, if you’re caught with 1-5 kg, you can expect a minimum of 10 years of incarceration and a maximum of 50. For more than 5 kg, you would be looking at a minimum of 25 years to life. Anyone caught carrying between an ounce and 1 kg is subject to misdemeanor charges, up to a year of incarceration, and up to $500 in fines. Anyone caught cultivating or selling cannabis is subject to the same penalties

With that said, the state isn’t totally behind the times. Possession of under an ounce is only considered a civil violation as of 2013, when lawmakers voted to decriminalize the possession of personal amounts. In 2006, the state legalized medical marijuana for anyone with a qualifying condition. The qualifying conditions for a Rhode Island medical marijuana card include:

  • Cancer or treatment of the condition
  • Glaucoma or treatment of the condition
  • Positive status for HIV or treatment of the condition
  • AIDS or treatment of the condition
  • Hepatitis C or treatment of the condition
  • A chronic or debilitating medical condition or its treatment that produces one or more of the following:
    • Cachexia or wasting syndrome
    • Severe, debilitating, chronic pain
    • Severe nausea
    • Seizures
    • Severe and persistent muscle spasms, including but not limited to characteristic of multiple sclerosis or Crohn’s disease
    • Agitation related to Alzheimer’s Disease

Medical marijuana patients in Rhode Island may possess up to 2.5 ounces of cannabis at a time and cultivate up to 12 plants and 12 seedlings. Licensed medical dispensaries sell flower, edibles, tinctures, topicals, and concentrates to qualified patients. There were only three dispensaries across the whole state in November 2021, but five more licenses were awarded that month for five new dispensaries to open across Rhode Island. The expansion is meant to increase access for thousands of patients and increase business for the nearly 70 licensed growers across Rhode Island.

Do Rhode Islanders want legal weed?

The short answer is yes. Polling from the last few years has consistently shown that 57 percent of Rhode Islanders support legal recreational cannabis, and the numbers are much higher for younger voters. 

Residents of the Ocean State may be eager to get their hands on legal cannabis, but the plans have been halted since October, when legislative leaders said they were close to finalizing a deal. In December, Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi told WPRI-TV that they have worked the bill down to just one issue: Who should regulate the cannabis market – a new commission or the state’s Department of Business Regulation? He said we can expect to see the finalized bill in the first quarter of 2022. 

Looking ahead

Will Rhode Island legalize cannabis anytime soon? It sounds like it. We will be watching the state after the new year to see if Shekarchi’s projected timeline holds up. Even if 2022 is the year of legalization, there will likely be a long road ahead before retail begins. 

Cannabis sales data from neighboring Massachusetts shows over $2.31 billion in sales since retailers opened their doors in 2018. Its other neighbor, Connecticut, has legalized recreational cannabis but retail has yet to begin. Experts are projecting at least $70 million in tax revenue by 2025 once dispensary doors open. These numbers highlight big potential for Rhode Island. 

In an interview with the Boston Globe, Jared Moffat from the Marijuana Policy Project and director of Regulate Rhode Island said, “If I’m a state lawmaker looking at the budget, not legalizing marijuana is turning down tens of millions of dollars…What is on the chopping block because people are unwilling to update a law that 15 states have changed?”

With massive budget deficits in 2020 following the pandemic, and Massachusetts’ cannabis industry continuing to thrive, even more momentum has built for legalizing Rhode Island cannabis. We’ll be following this story closely. 

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