Raimondo open to vote on marijuana legalization

Gov also considering changes to her proposed medical marijuana fees and regs

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Gov. Gina Raimondo weighed in Tuesday about two hot topics related to marijuana, saying she’s open to a state referendum on legalizing the drug and is considering changes to her controversial proposal to impose new fees and regulations on its medical use.

“I am looking at whether Rhode Island should legalize recreational marijuana,” Raimondo told reporters during a midday question-and-answer session.

“I could see Rhode Island eventually getting there, but I’m not going to rush,” she said, citing “issues of safety – how do you regulate it? How do you keep it out of the hands of kids, especially the edibles?”

Asked about the possibility of calling a statewide referendum so voters could decide whether to legalize pot, Raimondo said: “I would be open to that” considering it’s “such a big decision.”

There appears to be growing momentum in favor of legalizing marijuana at the General Assembly, with Senate Majority Leader Dominick Ruggerio among those signing on to bills to do so this year. But other legislative leaders have signaled they want to take a more cautious approach, and rank-and-file lawmakers may be wary of taking such a high-profile vote in an election year.

Following Raimondo’s comments, House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello said in a statement he is “considering the possibility of placing a non-binding referendum question on the ballot regarding the use of recreational marijuana.”

“The legislation on this issue has not been considered yet by the House Judiciary Committee,” he said. “After a public hearing is held in the near future, the House will consider the various options.”

Jared Moffat, director of the pro-legalization group Regulate Rhode Island, said he found it “encouraging” to hear Raimondo’s comments but noted that polls his group has commissioned already show majority support for the change. “Since the public has already expressed strong support, we believe Governor Raimondo and other lawmakers have the mandate they need to move forward on the current legislation that has been proposed,” he said.

Raimondo said that she saw Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper at last month’s National Governors Association meeting in Washington, and asked about his state’s experience with legalization. Their staffs are now “talking a lot” about the pros and cons.

“They’ve made some mistakes,” she said. “I want to learn from them.”

Some advocates have suggested Rhode Island officials should act to legalize marijuana now so the state can get an economic advantage over Massachusetts, where voters will vote this November on a legalization question.

“I think there are probably some economic advantages to being first,” Raimondo said in response. “But I want to do it right.”

Separately, Raimondo acknowledged there has been “a lot of pushback” against a provision in her proposed state budget that would increase fees and regulation on medical marijuana, which the state legalized a number of years ago. House Health, Education and Welfare Committee Chairman Joseph McNamara recently criticized the plan, signaling it will likely face an uphill battle at the Assembly.

Raimondo indicated the proposal is likely to change. “I’m listening very closely to the pushback on the medical marijuana side of things to see if there are ways to adjust our proposal but also achieve what we’re trying to achieve, which is better regulation and uniformity,” she said.

Critics of the proposal have singled out its estimated cost – a nearly $10 million increase in fees and surcharges – as posing a burden on patients who need medical marijuana for health reasons.

Raimondo suggested she is taking the argument to heart. “This is medicine for people, and we want to make sure people who are in pain can have access to the medicine at a price they can afford,” she said.

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He hosts Executive Suite and writes The Saturday Morning Post. Follow him on Twitter: @tednesi

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