New study commission on legalizing marijuana in RI meets for first time

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The 19 members of a new study commission to look into legalizing recreational marijuana in Rhode Island met for the first time Wednesday, setting up plans to take testimony and study data from other states over the next several months.

The commission was formed by the legislature earlier this year, tasking the members with studying the effects of legal marijuana and reporting back its findings. Its members include legislators, law enforcement officials, mental health and medical professionals and advocates from both sides of the debate.

At Wednesday’s meeting, the members elected Rep. Dennis Canario, D-Portsmouth, and Sen. Joshua Miller, D-Cranston, as co-chairs of the commission. Miller has introduced legislation to legalize recreational marijuana for the past seven years in a row, but says he will keep an open mind to whatever the commission recommends.

“I’ve been a legislator for 10 years, so I’ve learned how to become patient,” Miller said.

Miller cited the recent legalization of marijuana in Massachusetts and upcoming legalization of retail sales in that state as a reason to take a hard look at the topic.

“No matter what we do, Rhode Islanders who want to access recreational marijuana will be able to access it,” he said.

Miller pointed out that the tax revenue Massachusetts will get from cannabis sales won’t be available to Rhode Islanders for substance abuse prevention, treatment and other resources related to legalization if Rhode Island doesn’t also legalize the drug.

“People will be accessing recreational marijuana, and Rhode Island will have not additional resources to deal with the issue,” he said.

Canario, a retired police officer from Portsmouth, is taking a more cautious approach. He originally sponsored the study commission as an alternative to outright legalization earlier this year.

“I’ve seen the adverse effect it’s had, in terms of people using it and getting behind the wheel of a vehicle,” he said.

Canario said he’s looking forward to hearing directly from the experts, including officials from Washington and Colorado where the drug is already legal.

“We want to make sure we have all the data that we need,” he said. “Any time we deal with a mind-altering substance, it’s concerning.”

The commission will also be looking at the potential costs of enforcement and other aspects of legalization, so that the money can be appropriated in potential legislation, Canario said.

The study commission is slated to come out with a report in March.