Kilmartin: Black market won’t disappear if RI legalizes pot

FILE - In this Nov. 9, 2016 file photo, a marijuana joint is rolled in San Francisco. On Monday, Feb. 27, 2017, the American Academy of Pediatrics is highlighting warnings about marijuana's potential harms for teens amid increasingly lax laws and attitudes on pot use. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File)

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Hoping to present “united opposition” to legalized recreational use of marijuana, Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Kilmartin and several law enforcement and community agencies Thursday morning said they are pushing back against the proposed regulation of the drug.

Last month, state Rep. Scott Slater introduced a bill that would regulate and tax recreational marijuana use by adults; Massachusetts legalized it in November and pro-legalization groups say it’s time for Rhode Island to catch up to its neighbors. A bill is also pending in the Senate.

Kilmartin, a second-term Democrat, hosted about a dozen speakers from medical professionals to legislators during the more than hour-long news conference that touched on a variety of possible “unintended consequences” from legalizing marijuana.

Kilmartin sought to debunk a common argument, that allowing regulated marijuana into retail stores would shrink or eliminate the black market for the drug.

“All you need to do is look at cigarette sales in the state of Rhode Island and the enforcement of untaxed cigarettes,” Kilmartin said. “That is a black market that exists with a legal tobacco product.”

Hopkinton Police Chief David Palmer, president of the Rhode Island Police Chiefs Association, said legalization would lead to even more drivers getting behind the wheel while high, and could result in “injury, death, and destruction” on state highways.

The bill that’s been introduced in the General Assembly would allow adults over 21 to grow and purchase marijuana from licensed retailers. Supporters say it would allow people who are already using marijuana to get it safely, rather than from drug dealers who are sometimes involved with crime and more dangerous drugs.

“Illegal marijuana causes all sorts of public health problems,” Regulate Rhode Island’s Jared Moffat told Eyewitness News. “There’s no testing, there’s no labeling, it’s contaminated with other substances. By regulating it we create safeguards and protections for consumers.”

Moffat said “three out of five Rhode Islanders support legalization because they understand that the sky has not fallen in Colorado, Washington or other states that have chosen to make marijuana legal for adults.”

Susan Duffy, a doctor with the Rhode Island chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, expressed concerns about marijuana use by teens, a group that both sides of the debate agree is already using the drug.

“Perhaps most important for youth is the potential impact on the developing adolescent brain,” Dr. Duffy said.

“You scared me,” Kilmartin said to the medical professionals who spoke at the event. “And I don’t scare easy.”

Rep. Slater, the lawmaker who introduced the legislation in the House, told Eyewitness News he shares the concerns that were expressed at the news conference, but said he believes a “tax-and-regulate environment is the way to go.”

“I want safe communities,” Slater said. “I don’t want kids to smoke marijuana …I think adults over 21 should be able to purchase marijuana and use it responsibly.”

Sen. Cynthia Coyne and Rep. Dennis Canario, both Democrats, spoke at Kilmartin’s news conference and said they are co-sponsoring a resolution to create a study commission on marijuana instead of legalizing it now.

When asked if any possible results of a study commission would sway Kilmartin’s stance, he said the anti-marijuana side “already convinced me,” but said “maybe we’ll take a second look at it” once the hypothetical commission completes its work.

A spokesperson for House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello said both the study commission proposal and the legalization bill will be considered during this year’s legislative session, and it would be “premature for him to weigh in” before hearings and testimony take place.

Mattiello, D-Cranston, has previously said that lawmakers would need to look closely at marijuana this year, now that Massachusetts has legalized recreational use of the drug.