Scott MacKay Commentary: Time For R.I. To Legalize Pot

Feb 12, 2016

Rhode Island’s New England neighbors are moving aggressively forward with legalizing marijuana. RIPR political analyst says the Ocean State shouldn’t be last to tap a new source of state money.

Whatever you think about legal marijuana, it is difficult to defend the current prohibition of the weed. 

Four decades of the war on drugs has been as abject a failure as the early 20th Century ban on alcohol.

Let us count the ways the current system is misguided. The ban on pot has done nothing to stem consumption of marijuana. Is there another law, except for speeding on Route 95,  that Rhode Islanders scoff at as widely as the anti-pot laws?

The system is rigged against minorities, particularly young black men. A 2013 study by the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island showed that blacks in our state are two and a half times to be arrested for pot possession that whites. The proportions are even higher in parts of the state, including Bristol County and Washington County, that have tiny minority populations.

Today’s pot ban has put the county in thrall to murderous Mexican drug cartels, wasting police time and  taxpayer money chasing and prosecuting frivolous crimes. Perhaps the worst result of all this is that, like alcohol prohibition, the current system breeds widespread disrespect for government.

We have little to show for the anti-pot campaign. It doesn’t keep the weed out of the hands of minors. As Republican House Leader Brian Newberry points out, ``talk to any high school kid and they’ll tell you it’s easier to get pot than alcohol.’’

Newberry supports legalization, but other General Assembly leaders have not seriously considered this wise course. That may be changing. House Speaker Nick Mattiello of Cranston has been a longtime opponent of legalization, but he is becoming ``more open-minded’’ on the topic, says spokesman Larry Berman.

The crucial reason for Mattiello’s change of stance -- the opportunity for state government to reap tax dollars in the same manner as Colorado has done since pot became legal.

Colorado’s regulated marijuana system generated more than $135 million in state money in 2015, says the Colorado Department of Revenue. More than $35 million was dedicated to school construction projects. Doesn’t the Ocean State need money to fix our crumbling schools?

Providence Rep. Scott Slater and Cranston Sen. Josh Miller have introduced for the fifth consecutive year a measure that would legalize and regulate recreational marijuana in a manner similar to Colorado. Miller has 17-co sponsors in the 38 member Senate including Majority Leader Dominick Ruggerio of Providence. Slater says he has at least 30 supporters in the House and is working on getting more.

While Rhode Island lawmakers talk about making pot legal, our neighboring states are moving beyond the chattering stage. In Vermont, Gov. Peter Shumlin backs legalization. On Friday, the Vermont Senate’s Finance Committee approved the governor’s legislation on a six to one vote. Massachusetts, where voters face a statewide referendum in November on making pot legal, has already sent a delegation of lawmakers to Colorado to study how the system works.

Connecticut, too, is considering legalization. If Massachusetts approves legal pot, there is no way to stop Rhode Islanders from popping over the border to buy it. We know this from our experience with alcohol. When Massachusetts voters dropped wine and beer taxes several years ago, liquor stores in the Ocean State lost so much business that our state was forced to follow suit.

Many of us think that sin taxes are a bad way to finance government. Yet, the reality in cozy New England is that once one state adopted lotteries and casinos, it was only a matter of time before other states went along.

Massachusetts borders four New England states, so when the Bay State pot domino falls, others will, and quickly.

Legal pot is much more likely than the current regime to keep pot away from children. A regulated dealer, argues Senator Miller, is far less likely to sell marijuana to a child than the black market dealers who sell not only weed, but much more dangerous substances, such as opioids and cocaine. Pot stores would be regulated in a manner similar to liquor stores.

Gov. Gina Raimondo has proposed a new tax on medical marijuana plants, which has angered patients. This is short-sighted on the governor’s part. It would be well-nigh impossible to regulate growers with a per plant tax. Do we want state tax agents prowling around people’s gardens and back fields? But it would be relatively easy for the state to oversee licensed pot stores, where the product is in plain sight.

Some law enforcement officials continue to oppose legalization. They have some points, especially the need to develop better methods of detecting  impairment levels in motorists. Colorado is working on a pilot program to test detection.

Raimondo and the General Assembly leadership must tackle this issue in a serious manner. Failure to grasp this reality would mean sitting idly while our recreational pot users pour their taxes into fixing roads and schools in other states.

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:40 and 8:40 and on All Things Considered at 5:44. You can also follow his political reporting and analysis at our `On Politics’ blog at