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Former RI Director of Health Supports Marijuana Legalization, But Opposes Proposed Bill

Thursday, April 13, 2017


Dr. Michael Fine

Former Rhode Island Director of Health Michael Fine in an interview with GoLocal said that he supports the concept of legalizing marijuana, but strongly opposes the current legislation, H-5555, because of what he says are deep flaws in the bill.

“I’m in support of the notion of legalaliztion of recreational marijuana, as long as it's for people over 21, and that its taxation is used to promote after-school and adult education programs, and treatment and prevention,” said Fine. 

The widely-respected Fine, who has been one of the leading innovators in public health in the United States, said after a closer inspection of the bill, that he found it to be "anti-Democratic" and lends itself to corporate influencing.

“There's a poison pill -- which [are] the state preemption clauses," said Fine. "The bill says that cities and towns can't prohibit the retail sale of marijuana, and if they want to restrict the sales in some way, every time they do, they have to have a referendum.”

Switching Sides

Fine was originally on a list circulated by Jared Moffat of RegulateRI of high-profile Rhode Islanders scheduled to testify in favor of the legislation or submit testimony at the House hearing on Tuesday. However, GoLocal was notified afterwards that Fine neither testified, nor submitted testimony.

“When I talked with Jared, I [originally] said I'd be happy to be in favor (of the legislation). But, spending time in state government -- it's always dangerous to read bills,” said Fine. 

“I read it fully yesterday morning -- Jared was good about trying to say we can try to change it," said Fine the current language to bind cities and towns. "But his explanation, as I understood it, was because giving towns the choice would make the process more democratic, that advocates were worried town councils would do the opposite of what the constituents wanted. Not for nothing, but we do live in a representative democracy -- to go around that is a little troublesome."

Tuesday night at the House Judiciary Committee, hundreds attended and a diverse group of community leaders and special interests testified for the legalization legislation, including Jim Vincent of the Providence Chapter of the NAACP as well as disabled Vietnam veteran and former police officer Roland Gauvin.

There is mounting pressure to follow Massachusetts and legalize in order to generate critical tax revenue.

“It turns out the public health evidence from alcohol is pretty clear. The way you reduce use and over-use is to restrict retail sales, whether altogether or opening hours of outlets, so [this] bill closes the best opportunity to control use -- and remember we have major issues of use, with substance abuse in Rhode Island,” said Fine.

Fine pointed to Rhode Island being currently ranked 5th in the nation for marijuana use.

"We used to be number one, but we dropped when states legalized. If we legalize, I have no doubt we'd be one again," said Fine. "We have major issues with every other substance we know about -- our real challenge is reducing use and the bill doesn't do that.”

Money’s Role

Fine saide he worried that the legalization of marijuana will put powerful corporate interests in positions of power and influence, citing hospitals, tobacco, alcohol and pharmaceuticals all as being influential interests.

“I like democracy -- so this kind of preemption [in the bill] shows up when a corporate or financial interest wants some evil product that can't be restricted from a public health perspective. It comes up for tobacco, it's always someone pushing something who want to circumvent the process,” said Fine 

“People spent a lot of money opening compassion centers, when they're supposed to be a non profit? Hospitals are not for profit and they spend millions on their executives -- we should take them all to task," said Fine. "Take hospitals -- who aren't nonprofit, they're just not tax paying. They take out the profit and pay their execs.” 


Related Slideshow: Winners and Losers in Raimondo’s FY18 Budget Proposal

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Criminal Justice Reform

Per recommendations from the Justice Reinvestment Working Group, the Governor is proposing nearly $1 million in investments such as the public defender mental health program ($185,000), improved mental health services at the ACI ($410,000), recovery housing ($200,000) and domestic violence intervention, in her FY18 budget. 

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English Language Learners

Under the heading of “promoting 3rd grade reading,” Raimondo proposed adding $2.5 million to make English Language Learning (ELL) K-12 funding permanent.  The Governor’s office points out that RI is one of four states that doesn’t have permanent funding.

The suggestion was one made by the Funding Formula Working Group in January 2016, who said that “in the event that Rhode Island chooses to make an additional investment in ELLs, the funding should be calculated to be responsive to the number of ELLs in the system and based on reliable data, and include reasonable restrictions to ensure that the money is used to benefit ELLs — and promote the appropriate exiting of ELL students from services.”

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Car Owners - and Drivers

Governor Raimondo wants to reduce assessed motor vehicle values by 30% - a change that would reduce total car tax bills by about $58 million in calendar year 2018. Speaker of the House Nicholas Mattiello, however, has indicated that he might want to go further in its repeal.  

In her budget proposal, Raimondo also put forth adding 8 staffers to the the Department of Motor Vehicles to "address wait times."

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T.F. Green

The “Air Services Development Fund” would get an influx of $500,000 to “provide incentives to airlines interested in launching new routes or increasing service to T.F. Green Airport.” The Commerce Corporation set the criteria at the end of 2016 for how to grant money through the new (at the time $1.5 million fund).

Also getting a shot in the arm is the I-195 development fund, which would receive $10.1 million from debt-service savings to “resupply” the Fund to “catalyze development & attract anchor employers.”

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Minimum Wage Increase

An increase in the state minimum wage is part of Raimondo’s proposal, which would see it go from $9.60 an hour to $10.50 an hour.  Raimondo was unsuccessful in her effort in 2016 to bring it up to $10.10 — it was June 2015 that she signed legislation into law that last raised Rhode Island’s minimum wage, from $9 to 9.60.  

The state's minimum hourly wage has gone up from $6.75 in January 2004 to $7.75 in 2013, $8 in 2014, and $9 on Jan. 1, 2015.  Business groups such as the National Federation of Independent Business however have historically been against such measures, citing a hamper on job creation.  

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Cigarette Tax

Like the minimum wage, Raimondo is looking for an increase - in this instance, the cigarette tax, and revenue to state coffers.  Raimondo was unsuccessful in her effort to go from a tax of $3.75 to $4 last year. Now she is looking for an increase to $4.25 per pack, which the administration says would equate to $8.7 million in general revenue — and go in part towards outdoor recreation and smoking cessation programs.  

The National Federation of Independent Business and other trade groups have historically been against such an increase, saying it will hurt small businesses - i.e. convenience stores. And clearly, if you’re a smoker, you’re likely to place this squarely in the loser category instead. 

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As often happens in the state budget, winner one year, loser the next. As GoLocal reported in 2016, “the Rhode Island Hospital Association immediately lauded the budget following its introduction, and addressed that while it is facing some reductions, that it "applauds" this years budget after landing on the "loser" list last year.”

This year, it falls back on the loser list, with a Medicaid rate freeze to hospitals, nursing homes, providers, and payers — at FY 2017 levels, with a 1% rate cut come January 1, 2018. 

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Online Shoppers

The taxman cometh — maybe.  Raimondo proposed an “Internet Sales Tax Initiative” — which would purportedly equate to $34.7 million in revenues.

"Online sales and the fact that online sellers do not collect sales tax has created a structural problem for Rhode Island's budget — our sales taxes have been flat," said Director of Administration Michael DiBiase, of the tax that Amazon collects in 33 states, but not Rhode Island. "We think mostly due to online sales, we’re able to capture the growth. The revenue number is $35 million dollars — it improves our structural deficit problem. It’s an important fiscal development."

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Long Term Care Funding

The Governor’s proposal recommends “redesigning the nature” of the State’s Integrated Care Initiative, by transferring long-term stay nursing home members from Neighborhood Health to Medicaid Fee-for-Service and repurposing a portion of the anticipated savings (from reduced administrative payments to Neighborhood Health) for “enhanced services in the community.” “The investments in home- and community-based care will help achieve the goal of rebalancing the long-term care system," states the Administration. 

Cutting that program is tagged at saving $12.2 million; cuts and “restructuring” at Health and Human Services is slated to save $46.3 million. 


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