Rhode Island Legislature fails to advance legalization again in 2018

Last update: July 13, 2018


Rhode Island saw little progress on marijuana policy reform during the 2018 legislative session, which came to a close in June. In May, state Sen. Josh Miller introduced legislation, S 2895, to legalize, regulate, and tax marijuana for adult use. After being referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee, however, the bill was “held for further study” and did not receive a vote.

In her state budget proposal, Gov. Gina Raimondo attempted to make a number of a changes to Rhode Island’s medical marijuana program, including expanding the number of dispensaries (“compassion centers”) from three to 15. Unfortunately, leaders in the House rejected almost all of the proposed changes in their final version of budget. Lawmakers instead increased the yearly licensing fee for dispensaries from $5,000 to $250,000, the highest annual fee for a marijuana business in any state.

Created in 2017, the General Assembly’s marijuana legalization study commission met a handful of times this year but has so far failed to produce a report or make recommendations. Legislators opted to extend the study commission into 2019. Another noteworthy outcome of this year’s legislative session is passage of Sen. Harold Metts’ and Rep. Scott Slater’s bill, which will allow Rhode Islanders to retroactively expunge criminal offenses from their record for violations which have been subsequently decriminalized, including marijuana possession.

A poll from 2017 found that three out of five Rhode Islanders support treating marijuana similarly to alcohol. With legalization ramping up in neighboring Massachusetts, pressure will continue to build on the General Assembly to end the failed policy of marijuana prohibition.

The 2018 primary season has begun in Rhode Island, and the best way to lay the groundwork for progress in 2019 is to get involved in local elections if you’re a resident. Asking candidates where they stand on legalization is a great way to make marijuana policy reform a visible and important campaign issue.

Marijuana laws in Rhode Island


Possession of small amounts is decriminalized: Possession of an ounce or less of marijuana is a civil penalty punishable by a citation of $150 for the first offense. The fine increases if not paid in a timely manner. If an individual receives three citations within an 18-month period, the individual may be charged with a misdemeanor. Minors under the age of 18 are required to appear before family court and be evaluated for substance misuse disorder in addition to paying the $150 fine.

Medical marijuana permitted: An individual may register as a medical marijuana patient if his or her doctor certifies that the individual suffers from one or more of the following conditions:

  • cancer or the treatment of this condition
  • post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • glaucoma or the treatment of this condition
  • positive status for human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) or the treatment of this condition
  • acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) or the treatment of this condition
  • hepatitis C or the treatment of this condition
  • a chronic or debilitating disease or medical condition or its treatment that produces one or more of the following:
    • cachexia or wasting syndrome
    • severe, debilitating, chronic pain
    • severe nausea
    • seizures, including but not limited to those characteristic of epilepsy
    • severe and persistent muscle spasms, including but not limited to those characteristic of multiple sclerosis or Crohn's disease
    • agitation related to Alzheimer's disease

Once registered, a medical marijuana patient is permitted to cultivate up to 12 immature, non-flowering marijuana plants and up to 12 mature, flowering plants, provided each plant has a valid “tag” issued by the Department of Business Regulation. Patients are allowed to purchase marijuana products from three state-licensed dispensaries known as compassion centers. A patient may also appoint a caregiver to cultivate and provide medical marijuana.

Timeline of marijuana policy reform in Rhode Island


2006 – The Rhode Island General Assembly overrode Gov. Donald Carcieri’s veto to enact the Edward O. Hawkins and Thomas C. Slater Medical Marijuana Act.

2009 – Lawmakers approved an amendment to the medical marijuana law allowing state-licensed medical marijuana dispensaries (“compassion centers”).

2009 - The General Assembly approved legislation to establish the Special Senate Commission to Study the Effects of Marijuana Prohibition.

2010 – The Special Senate Commission to Study the Effects of Marijuana Prohibition met several times and issued a report recommending the decriminalization of possession of an ounce or less of marijuana.

2012 – Lawmakers approved the marijuana decriminalization law, which went into effect on April 1, 2013.

2016 – Lawmakers approved the state budget, which made substantial reforms to Rhode Island’s medical marijuana program. Click here to read a summary of changes made by Article 14 of the Rhode Island FY 2017 budget.

2016 – Lawmakers approved legislation adding PTSD to the list of qualifying conditions for medical marijuana.