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Rhode Island Governor Open to Legal Marijuana on Ballot

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House Speaker Says Referendum Might Be Nonbinding

Rhode Islanders could join voters in a handful of other states who are already expected to decide on marijuana legalization ballot measures this November.

Gov. Gina Raimondo (D) told reporters at a briefing on Tuesday that she would consider supporting a referendum on the issue.

“I am open to that. It is a big decision,” she said, according to the Providence Journal. “I could see the logic in saying it’s the kind of thing that people ought to have a say in … It doesn’t say I’m committed to it, but I’m open to it.”

According to WPRI, Raimondo spoke last month with Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper about that state’s experience with legal marijuana. The staffs of the two executives are now “talking a lot” about the pros and cons of ending prohibition.

Rhode Island lawmakers are currently considering legislation to legalize and tax marijuana and, while those bills have impressive lists of co-sponsors, including the Senate majority leader, it is not clear that they will be brought to a vote by the end of the session, expected in June. Similar legislation was introduced last session but never received a vote in committee or on the floor in either the House of Representatives or the Senate.

A marijuana legalization measure has been certified for Nevada’s November ballot, and advocates are expected to qualify similar initiatives in Arizona, California and Massachusetts. The Maine secretary of state recently ruled that legalization advocates there did not turn in enough valid signatures to qualify, but that decision is being contested in court.

Unlike other states with legalization on the ballot this November, Rhode Island does not have a voter initiative process through which citizens can collect signatures to put proposals up for a vote. But legislators, using the referendum process, can place questions on the ballot and give voters the chance to weigh in.

If a legalization question were to appear on the November ballot, it appears likely to pass. A poll last year found that 53 percent of Rhode Islanders support legalizing and taxing marijuana.

House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello has said he’s keeping an open mind on legalization, indicating that if voters in neighboring Massachusetts end prohibition this November, lawmakers in the Ocean State could act quickly to catch up so Rhode Island doesn’t lose out on tax revenue and jobs.

After Raimondo’s Tuesday comments were first reported, Mattiello said the legislature was considering a non-binding referendum that would allow voters to weigh in on the question of legalization but still leave the ultimate decision in the hands of lawmakers

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

Raimondo previously indicated she thought legalization is inevitable but that the state should take the time to carefully craft regulations that protect public health and safety.

“I think there probably are some economic advantages to being first, but I’d rather get it right,” she said on Tuesday.

Separately, Raimondo recently proposed taxing patients’ homegrown medical cannabis plants as a way to raise revenue. Advocates have pushed back strongly, saying that if the state wants to generate money from marijuana it should just end prohibition across the board and tax recreational use instead of burdening patients.

The governor appears to have heard those concerns.

“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 on Tuesday. “We’re looking at is [the proposed tax] just too high? Because look, we don’t want to put a burden. This is medicine for people. We want to make sure that people who are in pain who need access to the medicine can have access to the medicine at a price they can afford.”

This story has been updated to add comments from Mattiello.

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