There appears to be more momentum in the push to legalize recreational marijuana in Rhode Island, and Senate Majority Leader Dominick Ruggerio has thrown his support behind a recent bill, which he is co-sponsoring. (Ed Andrieski, Associated Press file)

Rhode Island fight for recreational weed gains a heavyweight backer

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — A push to legalize recreational marijuana in Rhode Island has won the support of a top lawmaker.

Senate Majority Leader Dominick Ruggerio, a North Providence Democrat, has signed on as co-sponsor of a bill to treat marijuana like alcohol by legalizing, regulating and taxing it.

“It is an important conversation to have,” Ruggerio said in a statement. “I have listened to the debate regarding legalization of marijuana over the years and watched the experience in states such as Colorado,” which legalized the commercial sale of the drug.

The bill’s main sponsor in the Senate, Democratic Sen. Joshua Miller of Cranston, had introduced his long-shot legislation for several years without success but said there is more momentum this year. Other lawmakers might take the legislation more seriously when there’s support from people in leadership positions, Miller said.

“It’s not outlier legislation,” he said Friday.

Miller said he also thinks the push for similar legislation in other New England states will help. He points to Vermont, where lawmakers are advancing a bill, and Massachusetts, which might ask voters in the November election.

Ruggerio did not co-sponsor the bill last year. It stalled in the judiciary committee.

“I believe that removing marijuana from the black market may make our communities safer,” Ruggerio said. He said Miller’s bill includes important safeguards and will bring money to the state.

A companion bill is being introduced in the Rhode Island House. Democratic House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello told the Providence Journal that while legalizing marijuana is not currently on his agenda for the session, he’ll keep an open mind.

Miller was guardedly optimistic that the legislation could pass.

“Every year we get more and more support,” he said. “Whether we have enough support this year is something that remains to be seen as we go forward and make our case. I’m optimistic.”

Gov. Gina Raimondo has separately unveiled a plan to tax medical marijuana plants.

Medical marijuana advocates are opposing the proposed annual fee, and Miller said Raimondo’s plan would make more sense for plants not used as medicine.