Upriseri digs deep into the legislation introduced and what it means if it passes
“The magnitude of the cannabis legislation, specifically the state-initiated expungement piece, is without equal,” said Representative Leonela Felix (Democrat, District 61, Pawtucket), who took the lead on ensuring that the bill was amended to include automatic expungement. “This legislation will automatically grant relief to many Rhode Islanders without placing the burden on them to seek an expungement. Individuals will gain access to educational, employment, and housing opportunities without a conviction record.”
May 17, 2022
The amended legislation to legalize adult cannabis use in Rhode Island contains language pertaining to the automatic expungement of any prior civil violation, misdemeanor or felony convictions for possession, say sponsors sponsored Senator Joshua Miller (Democrat, District 28, Cranston, Providence) and Representative Scott Slater (Democrat, District 10, Providence). The amended bill also pushes the start date of legalized adult recreational sales from October 1 to December 1 and eliminates the current fees charged to patients and caregivers for registration in the state’s medical marijuana program.
Based on committee testimony and debate held since the bills were introduced on March 1, the amended legislation is scheduled to be considered on Wednesday by committees in both the House and the Senate. Following approval by the House Finance Committee and the Senate Judiciary Committee, the amended bills are expected to come before the full membership of each chamber for a vote Tuesday, May 24.
The legislation (2022-S2430, 2022-H7593) legalizes the sale and possession of up to one ounce of cannabis for those age 21 and up, with no more than ten ounces for personal use kept in a primary residence. It would also allow Rhode Islanders to grow a small amount of cannabis at home.
In a fact sheet, the sponsors explained that after reviewing committee testimony and investigating the court’s capabilities, the amended legislation implements an automatic expungement process which does not require a petition, fee or hearing. Offenses eligible for automatic expungement are expanded in the amended legislation to include civil violations, which were specifically clarified as eligible for automatic expungement. The amended legislation also defined “conviction” for the purposes of the act.
The amended legislation provides that any prior civil violation, misdemeanor or felony convictions for possession only of a decriminalized marijuana offense are eligible for automatic expungement by July 1, 2024. This creates a two-year period for the court system to implement automatic expungement and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court is charged with meeting that two-year deadline.
The amended legislation also provides an expedited process for individuals who do not wish to wait up to two years. Similar to the original bill, the expedited process does not require a fee or a hearing. It is simply a request to the court, according to a procedure determined by the Chief Justice. The amended legislation also clarifies immunity language relating to the Judiciary and its employee.
The Formerly Incarcerated Union of RI, the Working Families Party, Reclaim RI, and the Marijuana Policy Project applaud the improvement to the bill. Advocates emphasized that a criminal record for cannabis can have lasting negative effects for individuals seeking housing, education, and employment opportunities. In addition, it will be far more efficient for Rhode Island courts to automatically expunge all past possession records rather than engage in the costly process of expunging records one at a time.
States with automatic expungement policies for past marijuana convictions, such as California and Illinois, are far more effective and provide relief to many more individuals compared to states with non-automatic expungement policies. Automatic expungement will also prove less costly to state government.
“The magnitude of the cannabis legislation, specifically the state-initiated expungement piece, is without equal,” said Representative Leonela Felix (Democrat, District 61, Pawtucket), who took the lead on ensuring that the bill was amended to include automatic expungement. “This legislation will automatically grant relief to many Rhode Islanders without placing the burden on them to seek an expungement. Individuals will gain access to educational, employment, and housing opportunities without a conviction record.
“I am proud of the work we’ve done with the advocates such as the Marijuana Action Project, Last Prisoner Project, Code for America, Formerly Incarcerated Union, and Reclaim RI in advocating for an amendment for state-initiated expungement which is less costly for the state and less burdensome on the individual,” continued Representative Felix. “Rhode Island is not only equitably granting conviction relief to many Rhode Islanders, but also, rebuilding trust in the justice system with the very communities targeted by the failed War on Drugs policy, primarily people of color.”
“We are at the heels of an historic moment here in Rhode Island – the inclusion of a state-initiated automatic expungement process for cannabis related offenses that will soon no longer be criminalized,” said Cherie Cruz, co-founder of the Formerly Incarcerated Union of RI. “The inclusion of state-initiated expungement in any framework of cannabis legalization is one of the most important concrete steps to work towards social justice, equity and repairing the harm of the failed war on drugs to so many impacted Rhode Islander’s. These efforts could not have been brought to fruition without the collaborative and dedicated efforts of so many, that includes legislators – such as Rep. Leonela Felix, fellow advocacy organizations such as Reclaim RI, Marijuana Policy Project, Working Families Party, and most importantly the advocacy efforts of those directly impacted by this failed war on cannabis”.
“The automatic expungement of criminal records puts this bill at the forefront of nationwide efforts to ensure that cannabis legalization bills right the wrongs of the drug war,” said Miguel Martínez Youngs, Organizing Director of Reclaim RI. “Alongside automatic expungement, this legislation takes the historic step of reserving retail cannabis licenses for worker-owned cooperatives. This will ensure that the people who suffered under prohibition benefit from legalization, instead of giving the whole industry away to the wealthy business people who we see dominating the legal marijuana market elsewhere in the country.”
“Getting state initiated expungement right is important for housing justice, economic mobility, and community development,” Georgia Hollister Isman, New England Regional Director for the Working Families Party. “Most of all, it is important for individuals and their families who have suffered for too long from marijuana prohibition. It has been wonderful to watch so many legislators mobilize to improve this part of the bill–especially Representative Felix who has really led the way on this change.”
“It’s encouraging to see Rhode Island continuing the trend of states including a government-initiated process for retroactive record clearance in their cannabis legalization laws,” said Jared Moffat, state campaigns manager for the Marijuana Policy Project. “We know this can be done successfully, and I am hopeful that agencies in Rhode Island will continue to collaborate to provide relief to tens of thousands of Rhode Islanders. I’m grateful for the leadership of Rep. Felix and other legislators who have made this issue a top priority.”
Preservation of Medical Program:
For participants in the state’s existing medical marijuana program, the amendment eliminates the current fees imposed upon patients, authorized purchasers and primary caregivers for registry identification cards and plant tags, effective when adult recreational use begins on December 1. The amendment also extends the date by which those with out-of-state medical marijuana cards must provide government-issued identification from the same jurisdiction. The original bill would have made that requirement effective upon enactment, but the amendment extends it until March 1, 2023.
There would be no changes to the proposed 10% state cannabis excise tax that will be in addition to the 7% sales tax, plus a 3% local tax for the municipality where the sale takes place.
Separation of Powers and Regulatory Structure:
In response to concerns raised about separation of powers, the amended bill makes some changes to the appointment process for members of the Cannabis Control Commission, the Cannabis Advisory Board and the administrative Cannabis Office, but their basic structure and functions remain as originally proposed. The revised bill smooths the transition to legal recreational use by allowing the Office of Cannabis Regulation to handle hybrid licensing to allow existing compassion centers and cultivators to serve the adult recreational market in addition to the medical market.
The amended bill makes no changes to the number of cannabis retailers allowed in Rhode Island: 33, distributed in six zones statewide, including the nine compassion centers that could become hybrid medical/recreational retailers.
The original bill allows municipalities to opt out of allowing marijuana sales in their community by referendum, and the amendment clarifies that those currently hosting compassion centers will not have the option to opt out. Those hosting existing licensed cultivators or testing labs will be allowed to opt-out, although those facilities will be grandfathered in. The amended bill also adds a procedure for a community that opted out to revisit the issue in later years, and allows municipalities to ban cannabis use in public places by ordinance.
The bill already included a strong social equity licensing program – including a first-in-the-nation reservation of retail licenses for worker-owned cooperatives – which will benefit people disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs.
The sponsors emphasized that the amended bill does not change the measures they included in the original bill to address social equity to reduce barriers to participation for those communities that have long been disproportionately affected by cannabis prohibition. Their proposal uses licensing fees and penalties to fund technical assistance and grants to applicants and communities that have been impacted, and reserves one license in each of the six districts for a social equity licensee and another in each district for a co-op.
“I’m proud that everyone involved — the advocates, the existing industry, patients, legislative leaders and the governor’s office — worked very cooperatively to smooth out the bumps and create a proposal that works for all the stakeholders,” said Senator Miller, in a statement. “We all wanted to do this in a way that is safe, keeps revenue in Rhode Island, and is as fair and equitable as we can possibly make it. The amended bill is a collaborative effort to address concerns about protecting medical use, ensuring fair governance and recognizing that we cannot make this transition without taking action to make whole the communities and individuals who have been punished for decades under prohibition.”
“Social equity has been a top concern for us throughout this whole process,” said Representative Slater. “Senator Miller and I represent some of the communities that have suffered disproportionate harm from prohibition for decades, resulting in generational poverty and mass incarceration. 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.”