The Rhode Island House Judiciary Committee convened this evening to take testimony on H 5274, the Marijuana Regulation, Control, and Taxation Act. This bill, sponsored by Rep. Edith Ajello, would end Rhode Island’s marijuana prohibition, replacing it with a system in which marijuana is taxed, regulated, and sold in a manner similar to alcohol. This is now the third session in a row that the Marijuana Policy Project has teamed with legislative champions like House Judiciary Chair Edith Ajello, community advocates, and allied policy organizations to make the case that marijuana should be regulated like alcohol, a far more dangerous substance. And for the third year in a row, I was so honored to be in Providence to participate.
Study after study shows that marijuana is objectively less harmful than alcohol, both for the consumer and the community. For instance, alcohol use is a major factor in many violent crimes and risk of injury to the user; the same is not true for marijuana use. It makes little sense to punish adults who choose to use the safer substance.
Where prohibition fails at prevention of use and abuse, it succeeds at enriching and empowering criminals and cartels. Whether we like it or not, marijuana is and, for decades has been, an in-demand commodity. By prohibiting marijuana, Rhode Island gift-wraps a lucrative, tax-free market to criminal enterprises and drug gangs, putting consumers at risk by exposing them to these harmful people. Since marijuana is illegal, the individuals and organizations that illegally profit are unable to rely on our judicial system to step in and resolve business disputes. This often leads to violence that affects not just the criminals, but our broader communities as well.
Residents of Rhode Island explained how prohibiting marijuana starves Rhode Island of potential tax revenue that could be used to fund vital projects. Marijuana prohibition fails spectacularly at preventing use, but it succeeds in making sure our state and local governments are prevented from collecting revenue off sales. Ending the prohibition will allow Rhode Island to collect sales tax on the purchase of marijuana by adults 21 and older. The particular bill in question also imposes an excise tax of $50 an ounce at the wholesale level. This is real money that Rhode Island can use for good and necessary programs. For instance, under the provisions of the bill, 40% of revenue raised from marijuana sales will go to fund programs for the treatment of alcohol and drug abuse.
Committee members also heard from concerned parents and grandparents about the need to start treating marijuana use for what it is: a matter of public health, not public safety. Rhode Islanders don’t want their children to use marijuana, and we agree with them. But Rhode Islanders also know that marijuana prohibition creates an environment that puts their children at a greater risk than marijuana as a substance ever could. It’s true that we can’t prevent all instances of youth use in Rhode Island, but we can and should address the harms associated with use under prohibition. Prohibition ensures that individuals who have no qualms about breaking the law monopolize the market. Naturally, some of these individuals will have other more harmful drugs available. Regulations ensure that marijuana, and only marijuana, is sold by accountable businesses who card before sales.
We’ve tried prohibition, and it’s failed. No matter how much marijuana law enforcement confiscates, no matter how many individuals they lock up for selling marijuana, and no matter how many users they cite for possession, supply and demand remain. There are many, many reasons to support ending marijuana prohibition, but really no good reason to keep it around. Despite the logic, it will still take time and patience before we can replace prohibition with a system that allows responsible adults to choose to use marijuana in private. Many, many, thanks are in order for Rebecca McGoldrick, Michelle McKenzie, Hillary Davis, Jared Moffat, Beth Comery, and everyone else from the Coalition for Marijuana Regulation who showed up in support. Special thanks to our legislative champion, Chair Ajello, as well as to Minority Leader Newberry and all of their supportive colleagues in the House. What a day!