(AP Photo/Marina Riker, File)

Rhode Island wants to “beat Massachusetts to the punch” on marijuana sales

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Rhode Island state legislators hoping to legalize recreational marijuana say they have enough support to pass a bill if it comes to a vote this spring in the Democrat-controlled General Assembly.

Rep. Scott Slater, a Providence Democrat and legalization proponent, said taking action this year would allow Rhode Island to have regulations and a new source of tax revenue in place before retail marijuana stores open over the border in Massachusetts. He said Rhode Island has already strengthened the way it regulates and taxes medical marijuana plants, so “flipping the switch” to allow recreational use wouldn’t be hard.

“We’ll definitely be able to beat Massachusetts to the punch,” Slater said. “They seem to keep delaying it.”

Voters in California, Massachusetts, Maine and Nevada last year approved recreational use of marijuana, joining Colorado, Washington, Oregon and Alaska. But Massachusetts lawmakers have delayed the opening of marijuana shops until mid-2018 at the soonest.

In Rhode Island, lawmakers have debated marijuana legalization for years but haven’t voted on it. Allowing a vote would require the support of top legislative leaders, such as Democratic House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello. The year’s first legislative hearing on the proposal is scheduled for Tuesday in the House Judiciary Committee.

“The speaker said he’s open-minded still, and he’s waiting for the hearing,” said Slater, describing a recent conversation with Mattiello. “He wants the bill to be vetted in committee and hear the different opinions.”

Concerns remain about some of the details of the bill, such as how it would regulate edible marijuana products, Slater said.

Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo and Democratic Senate President Dominick Ruggerio have also expressed willingness to consider it. Ruggerio is officially a co-sponsor of the Senate’s pot legalization bill, No. 420, but said recently it needs work and that he signed on to have a “seat at the table.”

Opponents are also mobilizing, including Democratic Attorney General Peter Kilmartin. Kilmartin last month gathered pediatricians, police leaders and other opponents concerned about the unintended consequences on health and public safety.

The Providence Journal reported that advocates for and against legalization have increased their lobbying presence at the State House this year.