Top lawmakers indicate willingness to pursue adult-use legalization in 2021
Last update: January 14, 2021
Following a year and a legislative session disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, leading political figures in Rhode Island have spoken favorably about the chances of passing a law to legalize and regulate marijuana for adults in 2021.
Last year, Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo included a plan to legalize marijuana through a state-ownership system in her annual budget proposal. The legalization measure, along with other legislation in the budget bill, was ultimately stripped from the “skinny budget” approved by lawmakers in late 2020.
This year, leaders in the Rhode Island General Assembly have — in a shift of tone from previous years — indicated that they are open to legalization but would prefer a privately run system. Senate President Dominick Ruggerio has directed Senate Majority Leader Michael McCaffrey along with longtime legalization champion Sen. Josh Miller to lead the efforts to draft legalization legislation. On the House side, the new Speaker, Rep. Joseph Shekarchi, has indicated openness to legalization and indicated that there may be a task force established to develop policy proposals.
In the meantime, the Rhode Island Department of Business Regulation is moving forward with a lottery system to award six new licenses for medical marijuana dispensaries — known as compassion centers — to 28 prospective applicants.
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.