Legalized Marijuana in Jeopardy with Mattiello as Speaker

Wednesday, March 26, 2014


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Nicholas Mattiello's dream of being Speaker of the House could be a nightmare for Rhode Island's marijuana legalization proponents. One of those proponents is Edith H. Ajello, D-Providence. Ajello, along with Josh Miller, D-Cranston, introduced a bill which calls for the legalization of marijuana to be regulated and taxed like liquor sales.

“Mattiello did not sign it, though I invited him to sign it before I put it in,” Ajello said.

“Nevertheless, he was not an early supporter of marriage equality and he came to his senses on that … or we came to a common way of thinking. I shouldn’t say ‘he came to his senses.’”

Ajello said Mattiello could be persuaded to consider legalizing marijuana for its revenue benefits and job creation – Mattiello has been clear that his most important issues are jobs and the economy. However, she was quick to point out that legalizing and regulating marijuana is important to her for social and safety reasons first.

“I have not discussed that [economic benefits] with him, but it is certainly an issue I would raise. I want to be clear: The revenue is not my first reason for supporting this. My first reason is to get something that is so commonly used, evidently, out of the underground. To end the prohibition because it has not worked.”

Using Colorado's example

Local interest in legalized marijuana was propelled recently by reports of Colorado’s multi-million dollar revenue from recreational marijuana sales. Rhode Island’s proposed bill would make Governor Lincoln Chafee 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., Chafee discussed the possibility of "pot for potholes" – using marijuana sales revenue for infrastructure improvement – by passing a bill approved by state lawmakers.

If there’s a selling point for Mattiello to get behind this bill, experts say it’s the revenue.

“The Speaker change may have big impact on the proposed marijuana bill. Mattiello has indicated he wants to focus more on economic than social issues so marijuana may not be on the fast track. He may prefer to move legislation that more directly links to business development. The only exception to this would be if the new Speaker sees the revenues that would come in through legalization as a way to fund economic development activities,” said Darrel West of the Brookings Institution.

“He likely would assess this bill strictly from an economic standpoint. If it is something he believes would create jobs and boost state revenues, he might go for it. But if it doesn’t boost the economy, he probably wouldn’t have much interest in it.”

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Speaker of the House, Nicholas Mattiello

Not purely a financial issue

The debate isn’t purely financial. Like casinos, legalized marijuana comes with a stigma.

“Although some believe the passage of the bill could generate substantial revenue for the state and will definitely reduce the incarceration rate of those caught with the drug, many community leaders still feel the social issues surrounding the use and availability of marijuana are not worth any dollars generated in taxes,” said Dr. Edward M. Mazze, Distinguished University Professor of Business Administration at The University of Rhode Island.

“With the change in leadership in the House, and the selection of Mattiello as leader, the proposed legislation to legalize marijuana will slow down because there is a growing opposition to the bill due to the many legal and social questions still unanswered.”

Legalization is likely, eventually

Mazze believes Rhode Island will eventually legalize marijuana. Other states may do it first, but the train is on the tracks. For better or worse, according to Mazze.

“The legalization of marijuana in Rhode Island will become a done deal. Like many other social issues, it will be difficult going up Smith Hill backwards when other states have made this decision or are getting ready to do it. The new leadership needs to move away from social issues and focus on job creation, economic development, bringing ethics back to government and getting rid of the stumbling blocks that make doing business in Rhode Island a nightmare.”

Gary Sasse, director of the Bryant Institute for Public Leadership and GoLocalProv MINDSETTER™, is known to many in Rhode Island as an economy expert. His opinions on legalizing marijuana are passionate, however, and dire. He has called the movement shortsighted and irresponsible.

“I believe that a consensus has emerged that the state should take a wait and see approach.

I do not know what the new Speaker's position is on legalization, but I do not think it has much chance of passing this session regardless of who sits in the Speaker's chair,” Sasse said.

“If the Speaker appoints a new Judiciary Committee this could also affect the chances of the bill being seriously debated.”

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Rep. Edith Ajello

Legislators may need new plan to pass legalization

If it’s true that Mattiello’s new role will slow down the momentum for legalized marijuana, proponents outside of the State House may have to formulate a new plan. Their message, however, remains the same.

“Our take on it is leadership may change but the fact is that a clear majority of Rhode Islanders support ending marijuana prohibition. They support a more controlled system to make our communities safer, to bring in a lot of jobs and economic activity for the state,” said Jared Moffat, Director of Regulate Rhode Island.

Regulate Rhode Island is a coalition of citizens who believe that marijuana prohibition wastes public resources, discriminates against communities of color, and undermines public health and safety.

“Mattiello said his priority would be jobs and the economy. Rhode Islanders are ready for this. If he wants to create jobs this is a sensible way to do that.”

Any state with plans to legalize marijuana will draw national attention. In Rhode Island’s case, there’s a hometown element to that national attention. Tom Angell, chairman of the pro-legalization group Marijuana Majority, is a Rhode Island native. He graduated from URI in 2004.

“I checked with some connected lobbyists in Providence and the general consensus seems to be that it's just too early to tell how the leadership change will affect the prospects for marijuana legalization legislation,” he said.

“I can't reveal my lobbyist sources. That said, I can tell you that I remain optimistic that Rhode Island is likely to be the first state to legalize marijuana through the legislative process as opposed to via ballot initiative. The legalization proposal enjoys broad bipartisan support from the membership in the General Assembly and I don't expect a change in leadership to change that fact.”


Related Slideshow: Potential Revenue From Legalized Pot in NE States

Using Colorado as an example, GoLocal analyzed how much potential revenue each New England state could make--and how impactful that would be to the state budgets--by following the same path.

In Colorado, recreational marijuana sales are taxed through a 12.9 percent sales tax alond with a 15 percent excise tax.

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Potential Annual Tax Revenue: $30.74 Million

State Population: 6.646 Million (2012)

FY 2014 State Budget: $34 Billion

Revenue as % of Budget: 0.1%

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Prev Next


Potential Annual Tax Revenue: $16.61 Million

State Population: 3.590 Million (2012)

FY 2014 State Budget: $18.8 Billion ($37.6 Billion Biennial Budget for 2014-15)

Revenue as % of Budget: 0.1%

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Prev Next


Potential Annual Tax Revenue: $6.15 Million

State Population: 1.329 Million (2012)

FY 2014 State Budget: $3.15 Billion ($6.3 Billion Biennial Budget for 2014-15)

Revenue as % of Budget: 0.2%

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Prev Next

New Hampshire

Potential Annual Tax Revenue: $6.11 Million

State Population: 1.321 Million (2012)

FY 2014 State Budget: $5.35 Billion ($10.7 Billion Biennial Budget for 2014-15)

Revenue as % of Budget: 0.1%

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Prev Next

Rhode Island

Potential Annual Tax Revenue: $4.86 Million

State Population: 1.050 Million (2012)

FY 2014 State Budget: $8.2 Billion

Revenue as % of Budget: 0.05%

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Potential Annual Tax Revenue: $2.90 Million

State Population: 626,011

FY 2014 State Budget: $2.22 Billion

Revenue as % of Budget: 0.1%


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