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RI Could Become First State to Legalize Pot Without Voter Approval

Tuesday, March 04, 2014


Governor Lincoln Chafee could become the first governor in America to legalize marijuana without putting the decision to the voters.

After attending a meeting of the National Governors Association in Washington, D.C., last week, Chafee discussed the possibility of "pot for potholes" – using marijuana sales revenue for infrastructure improvement – by passing a bill approved by state lawmakers.

At least one local expert thinks it’s a dangerous proposition.

“It would be extremely shortsighted and irresponsible to debate legalizing marijuana simply to raise tax revenue,” said Gary Sasse, former director of the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council, a former director of the Rhode Island Department of Administration and the state Department of Revenue, and now director of the Bryant Institute for Public Leadership at Bryant University.

“Coloradans legalized pot and their governor noted that going out and getting tax revenue is absolutely the wrong reason to even think about legalizing recreational marijuana. He is correct. Marijuana can put young people at risk. Let's see what happens in Colorado before jumping into the pool.”

Legalization through bill vs. ballot box

Chafee agrees on the timetable. Although Rhode Island lawmakers are now contemplating the possibility of legalizing by bill instead of ballot box, Chafee wants to see how legalization works in Colorado before making a decision.

Last month, a bill that calls for the legalization of marijuana to be regulated and taxed like liquor sales was introduced. The bill was sponsored by Sen. Josh Miller, D-Cranston, chairman of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, and Edith H. Ajello, D-Providence, chairwoman of the House Judiciary Committee.

“I would like to see a referendum but I did co-sign the legislation,” said District 65 Representative Gregg Amore (D).

“The War on Drugs has been an utter failure by every measure. The idea that marijuana use will significantly increase based on legalization does not ring true with me. I think we have a better opportunity to regulate and control if we legalize. A national legalization would dry up the black market as it did with alcohol.”

Amore is also a teacher at East Providence High School, which adds perspective to his position.

"My students will tell you that they can get pot a lot easier than they can get booze.”

Chafee has said the potential revenue is enticing for all governors. With his seat up for grabs in the upcoming election, the decision could fall into the hands of the next governor.

"It's great to see Governor Chafee expressing openness to legalizing and regulating marijuana,” said Tom Angell, chairman of Marijuana Majority, a pro-legalization group. Angell, a Rhode Island native, graduated from URI in 2004.

Prohibition ineffective

“Prohibition does virtually nothing to reduce use, and it causes a number of problems such as allowing violent drug cartels and gangs to make billions of dollars in tax-free profits in the black market. Bringing the marijuana trade aboveground, where it can be taxed, will benefit users and nonusers alike."

Regarding tax revenue from marijuana sales, Angell referred to recent projections from Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, “which shows that marijuana taxes there are absolutely going to benefit schools and public health programs to the tune of tens of millions of dollars,” Angell said.

Substantial boost in revenue projected

Colorado's retail marijuana shops opened in January. Though he opposed marijuana legalization, Hickenlooper released an aggressively optimistic new proposal last week regarding the revenue the legal marijuana industry could bring in for the state. Hickenlooper's budget office expects the recreational and medical marijuana industries will pump nearly $134 million in tax and fee revenue into state coffers in the fiscal year beginning in July. The proposal estimates sales in all marijuana stores to approach $1 billion for that fiscal year. Recreational pot shop sales are estimated to account for more than $600 million of that — a more than 50 percent increase over a previous projection.

Of course, projections aren’t always accurate.

"It is important to note that these amounts are estimates based on a number of assumptions of the new industry," according to the proposal. "We anticipate that these projections will change monthly as more data is collected and actual revenue could fall short of these projections."

The tallies – the first estimates since recreational marijuana sales began in stores Jan. 1 – are significantly higher than previous projections, which expected recreational marijuana stores to do $395 million in sales in the fiscal year beginning in July.

Washington State is right behind Colorado, with retail sales of marijuana slated to start this spring. Financial experts there predict marijuana revenue could bring in $190 million in taxes over a four-year period.

Sin tax?

But what of the ethical ramifications of legalizing a substance that is still controversial, despite its growing acceptance in American culture? The comparisons to cigarettes, alcohol and casino gambling revenue are obvious. Could this be called another “sin tax?”

“Legalizing ‘pot for potholes’ is a dead end street. While it's tempting to think that this avenue will make up for lost gambling revenue, the fact is that those who sell pot through the black market will continue to do so with more pure forms,” said former Rhode Island Attorney General Arlene Violet.

“It will soon become a market for the ‘kid stuff’ – which is legalized versus what you get as the ‘real stuff’ with a better high. We are only creating more candidates for stronger "highs".

Legalizing pot for the sake of revenue may be short-sighted and dangerous, according to critics. But most agree that the issue is twofold: How much money will the state bring in versus the potential damage caused by the proliferation of legal drugs.

"Well, it certainly would help make up the gambling revenue decline RI is headed for because of the new betting operations that will be opening in RI, said former Providence Journal political columnist M. Charles Bakst. "Personally, I'm not sure legalizing non-medical marijuana would be a good thing on the merits, though I could be convinced. And if it indeed is a smart thing to do for society, the justice system etc, the revenue would be a nice bonus. But I'm with those who say look at the issue itself first, don't rush into it just to make a buck. It's terrible that RI became so addicted to the revenues from slots, which I believe prey upon people's weaknesses and turns them into robots mindlessly handing over their money."

Dan Kennedy, Assistant Professor in the School of Journalism at Northeastern University, is on the same side.

“Personally, I think casinos are a terrible idea and that legalizing marijuana is a good idea. In general, though, if you're legalizing activities that are harmful to society for the sole purpose of raising tax revenues, you're headed down a dangerous road,” he said.


Related Slideshow: Marijuana Use in the New England States

According to data collected by the Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration, New Englanders are among the nation's top marijuana users in the country.  See how the indivdual states compare in the slides below:

Prev Next

6. Maine

Percent of respondents who used marijuana in the past year: 12.45%

National Rank: 13th most

Possession Laws: Decriminalized (2.5 ounces or less)

Prev Next

5. Connecticut

Percent of respondents who used marijuana in the past year: 12.50%

National Rank: 12th most

Possession Laws: Decriminalized (less than 0.5 ounce)

Prev Next

4. Massachusetts

Percent of respondents who used marijuana in the past year: 14.19%

National Rank: 5th most

Possession Laws: Decriminalized (1.0 ounce or less)

Prev Next

3. New Hampshire

Percent of respondents who used marijuana in the past year: 14.60%

National Rank: 4th most

Possession Laws: Medical Use Only

Prev Next

2. Rhode Island

Percent of respondents who used marijuana in the past year: 14.85%

National Rank: 3rd most

Possession Laws: Decriminalized (1.0 ounce or less)

Prev Next

1. Vermont

Percent of respondents who used marijuana in the past year: 14.90%

National Rank: 2nd most

Possession Laws: Decriminalized (1.0 ounce or less)


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This governor has done EVERYTHING without voter approval. Why should this be any different?
He raised state sales tax as soon as he got into office.
He legalized gay marriage.
Both would have been rejected if brought to the voters.

This state is such a joke, it's really beyond words.

Comment #1 by pearl fanch on 2014 03 04

Lets hope Chafee and the GA's business plan to save RI is not to be the rehab state in NE. Maybe they see this as a way to corner the gambling and pot treatment centers funded by the government and we the taxpayers.
Gambling and POT will surely be a business enticement (but what type of business will these be)? I for one would NEVER put my business in this quagmire of endless reaches for corruption and crime based practices in RI. There is NO hope for positive change with the lack of leadership we have in this state.
Hopeless in RI.

Comment #2 by Gary Arnold on 2014 03 04

They do everything else without voter approval - why should this be any different?

Comment #3 by C B11 on 2014 03 04

I agree with Rep. Amore and would like to see a referendum. He also spoke as being a teacher the students can get marijuana easier than alcohol that is sad but very true!
Why is it we can stop the dealers!! We need police and whatever it takes to step up to the plate and do their job. I am sure they know some of the dealers!
The State of RI where I have spent my whole life is now so different and it is so bad the way things go on now!

Comment #4 by Talkin Politics on 2014 03 04

Gary Sasse, Arlene Violet, Charlie Bakst? Was John Hawkins unavailable for comment? Talk about has beens! If that crew is opposed to something, you know it must be right.

As an aside, Gary Sasse is such a boob. Here's a guy that worked for Carcieri, perhaps the most uninspired Governor of our time (the supposed business guru who did nothing for the state except bless 38 Studios and give us a wind farm that will make Schilling look like small potatoes). Sasse and his crew had their chance with Carcieri and a compliant General Assembly (led by Murphy and Costantino who let the Gov get 99% of his budget requests). Look where we are now. He needs to go out to pasture.

Comment #5 by Gail Johnson on 2014 03 04

Rep Amore (D) said exactly what I have been saying for many years, “The War on Drugs has been an utter failure by every measure."

The keys words are "every measure". If there are ANY redeeming qualities to the 'war on drugs', then someone please tell me. Otherwise, let's start making some major paradigm shifts regarding our treatment of drug laws.

Comment #6 by Dave Johnson on 2014 03 04

Please! RI already has, like, the highest rate of cannabis usage in the world. Prohibition obviously isn't working. How will legalization make it any worse?

Besides, if you want to live in a free country then you need to accept the fact that occasionally your neighbors will make decisions that you don't agree with. It's called "tolerance" and it works way better than "zero tolerance" which in my view is nothing to brag about.

Comment #7 by Dusty Relic on 2014 03 04

Here is an interesting article about Portugal which decriminalized drugs a while back. http://www.spiegel.de/international/europe/evaluating-drug-decriminalization-in-portugal-12-years-later-a-891060.html Decriminalization is different than legalization, I understand that. Still it's a good read. Is a drug addict a criminal or are they sick? Are we better off putting our resources towards treatment or incarceration?

Comment #8 by Ted Geisel on 2014 03 04

Why should there be any accountability to the voters -- it's not live we live in a democracy or under a constitution or a network of laws. Chaffee, Raimondo, Fox, etc. -- they think they have the divine right of kings.

Comment #9 by Fruma Efreom on 2014 03 04

I reckon our "Leaders" ought to take a close look at the "esteem" they are held in by the voters (as reported in the Belo today) before doing something else "for our own good" as they like to say when they put it to us. It's only 7 months 'till the election and well over 60 % of the voters polled regardless of party are NOT happy. There might be quite a housecleaning in November IF the GOP can clone some candidates.

Comment #10 by G Godot on 2014 03 04

Nationally, police arrested more people for marijuana possession than for all violent crime combined in 2012. Every time a police officer makes an arrest for drugs, that's several hours out of his or her day not spent going after real criminals. People need to accept that drug use in and of itself is a victimless crime. Drug addicts who hurt no one should be treated as people who need help. On the other hand, I agree a person on drugs who commits a violent crime should suffer the same consequences as someone who is sober that commits a violent act, regardless of motive. Not all addicts are willing to go to the same lengths to ensure a high. A crime committed by one person against another should take precedence. As the country has been investing more and more of its resources into prosecuting drug crime, the rate of unsolved violent crime has been steadily increasing. We need to look at our priorities.


Comment #11 by Mike Davis on 2014 03 05

Also...if a person commits a violent crime in order to sustain their habit they should face the same penalties as anyone else would for committing the same crime. Motivation shouldn't matter.

Comment #12 by Mike Davis on 2014 03 05

When the projections for loss of revenue to Mass casinos comes in front of the GA they will go bananas and accept any idea to maintain the status quo.

Rhode Island is in a death spiral.

Comment #13 by Jim D on 2014 03 05

I commend you Governor Chafee, Josh Miller, and Edith Ajello for your approach to control, regulate, and tax this innocuous plant. This topic needs to be approached with scientific evidence and proper management. Colorado residents are still going to work every day and living their completely normal lives. Cats are not marrying dogs and the sky has not fallen. Clearly the Refer Madness Propaganda stunt of 1937 and rejection of scientific evidence on cannabis studies beginning in the Nixon era have propagated the myths and ignorance that exist today. I would ask all Americans to educate themselves on the history of cannabis up to the day it was declared a schedule 1 drug. It has been medicine for millennia and remains far superior to what BIG PHARMA has synthesized since the birth of "modern medicine". I ask Americans to familiarize themselves with the reasons this natural plant has been prohibited. Alert yourselves to statistics of racial disparity of those jailed (despite virtually identical use between African Americans and caucasians). How many thousands have died from the prohibition which directly creates underground cartels? Illegal drug dealers do not question the age of their clients. Controlling the sale of cannabis will not eliminate but greatly reduce the use of minors. Waiting for the studies of Colorado's culture and economy since legalization is silly. The answers already exist within foreign countries. Do a little research America. Learn about the studies of cannabis effects on heart cell preservation in mice injected with THC followed by induced heart attacks. Empower yourself with the knowledge that molecules in cannabis have been scientifically proven to have cancer-fighting properties! The evidence is overwhelming that cannabis is not a "gateway" drug or even harms any tissue/organs of the body. Where are all the "brown lungs" from cannabis? They do not exist because this is completely different from the tobacco leaf. Patrick Kennedy chose to pass on cannabis because he was asthmatic (and instead abused hard drugs). I guess he did not know that cannabis is a proven broncho-dilator! Our government has created a list of mortality rates (lethality by the numbers) due to harmful products to include tobacco, caffeine, aspirin, amongst other killers. Cannabis is not even on the list because its sole use has caused zero recorded deaths in history. Did anyone notice last Saturday’s Pro-Jo citing the economic state of Rhode Island with unemployment rates second worst in the country. Add to that the pot-holed ridden streets which lack funds to be repaired and salted. Rhode Islanders can either contribute to the state coffers for public schools and drug prevention for the youth, enter a new era of tourism and invite entrepreneurs (jobs), or continue to fund illegal drug dealers. Wake up!
(Foster, R.I. resident)

Comment #14 by Rhode Islander a on 2014 03 05

You people who think we need a referendum for every single law change really need to look at how this country was founded and how our government works. We are a Representative Republic, its how the country was founded. We don't need to put everything to a vote, that would be contrary to what our founding fathers had in mind when the country was formed.

Comment #15 by D Salera on 2014 03 05

why not? we legalized stupidity in the general assembly!

Comment #16 by LENNY BRUCE on 2014 03 05

According to a recent report (I believe Golocal published) we are 2nd only to Nevada in sin revenue as a percentage of our GDP. Lets be #1.

Comment #17 by bill bentley on 2014 03 06

General Assembly members are salivating of the though of all that tax revenue they can waste!

Comment #18 by Marie Dawn Christie on 2014 03 06

I'm all for it!! The lottery was once considered immoral, but is now one of RI's biggest sources of cash into the general fund. It is in reality a tax on people who are too stupid to understand simple math. Legalize pot too. It's just a tax on people too stupid to understand that inhaling a cloud of cancerous chemicals is bad for you. If taxing stupid people help avoid another big property tax increase, I cheer the whole concept.

Comment #19 by Katy Sloop on 2014 03 25

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