Rhode Island is the latest U.S. state to bring cannabis into the mainstream
Rhode Island has become the 19th state in the U.S. to legalize the possession and use of recreational cannabis, joining the rising tide of lawmakers in multiple states that have shifted their opinions to a more positive view of the plant. The new law follows years of debate in Rhode Island about legalizing cannabis, with the majority of Republicans and police leaders still wary about the drug. This underlines a divide that still exists in cannabis use along partisan lines, but it also brings to light another issue that seems to appear when cannabis legislation is debated–the lack of a tool to detect cannabis impairment analogous to a breathalyzer test for drinking and driving.
New momentum in the push for legalization
Once Gov. Dan McKee signs the bill into law, Rhode Island will join all but one state (New Hampshire) in the entire New England region in legalizing recreational cannabis, 16 years after it legalized medical use. The Rhode Island cannabis bill legalizes the possession of up to one ounce of cannabis in public and ten ounces at home, immediately, while sales will begin in December. Growing at home with plant limits will also be permitted. The three existing medical cannabis dispensaries in the state will be joined by six new locations and will begin selling recreational cannabis alongside their medicinal products.
Sponsors of the bill believe it provides a framework that is fair and equitable, pointing to several sections that aim to repair the harm caused by cannabis prohibition and ensure that business opportunities in the new industry will be available to lower-income and disadvantaged applicants. The bill states that the newly formed Cannabis Control Commission, which will oversee who is eligible for a cannabis license, will prioritize low-income applicants and worker co-ops. A portion of licensing fees will also be allocated to a so-called social equity assistance fund; a separate cannabis advisory board will determine the best way to spend these funds.
Cannabis-related charges against Rhode Island citizens will be expunged from police records.
Dealing with a common objection
Rhode Island lawmakers who voted against the bill offered a range of reasons they objected to legalizing cannabis, but one particular argument was familiar because it was raised by police officials in other states like New Jersey that just went through their own legalization process. The worry is that law enforcement doesn’t have a way to test for cannabis impairment in drivers like they do for alcohol. Police leaders in the state argue that law enforcement will struggle if cannabis use becomes more widely used.
Supporters of the bill argue that law enforcement already has reliable methods aside from breathalyzers to determine a driver’s level of alcohol impairment, and that police will learn as they did with drinking and driving how to identify and deal with high drivers.
There may be a need to either enhance and supplement impairment-recognition methods already used by law enforcement or better promote and explain the effectiveness of existing techniques; the lack of a device to detect cannabis impairment similar to a breathalyzer is a consistent objection raised by those who oppose cannabis legalization.