Legalization on the agenda for a likely special session this fall
Last update: July 7, 2021
Later this year, Rhode Island could become the 20th state in the nation to approve a law that legalizes cannabis for adults. Though the clock ran out in the regularly scheduled legislative session as lawmakers adjourned late last week, there’s still a good chance Rhode Island will end cannabis prohibition before the end of 2021.
In June, for the first time ever, a bill to legalize cannabis for adults passed in a legislative chamber of the Rhode Island General Assembly, when a proposal sponsored by longtime reform champion Sen. Josh Miller passed the state Senate 29-9.
Previously in the legislative session, Gov. Dan McKee and leaders in the House also introduced separate proposals to legalize cannabis, though those bills did not advance out of their respective committees. Each of the proposals differ in how they would regulate Rhode Island’s adult-use cannabis market, and lawmakers will need to reach a consensus in order to move forward.
The good news is that Speaker of the House Joe Shekarchi told The Providence Journal recently that cannabis legalization is one of his “summer projects,” and other top lawmakers have indicated that they think a unified plan can emerge in time to pass cannabis legalization in a special legislative session slated for this fall.
In the meantime, the Department of Business Regulation, which oversees the existing medical cannabis program in Rhode Island, is expected to hold a lottery in August to award six new additional licenses to medical cannabis retail businesses known as compassion centers.
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 is 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
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.
2017 – Lawmakers approved legislation to establish a 19-member study commission on marijuana legalization and its potential effects on the state.
2018 – Rhode Island Department of Health approved autism as a qualifying condition for medical marijuana.
2019 – Governor signed budget tripling the number of compassion centers licenses from three to nine.
2020 – Governor introduces plan to legalize marijuana with state-run stores in her annual budget bill.