Will Rhode Island ever legalize pot? And, if so, when?

If anyone knows the answers — aside from State House leaders who could bring a legalization bill to a floor vote this year, that is — it’s Jared Moffat, the 23-year-old director of Regulate Rhode Island, the grassroots organization on the front lines of the Ocean State’s legalization movement.

Less than a year after its incorporation, Regulate RI has already made impressive strides. They’ve enlisted the support of folks like the founder of Brown University’s Center for Alcohol and Addiction Studies, David Lewis, and Providence mayoral candidate, Brett Smiley; amassed more than 1700 Facebook “Likes”; and held a press conference at the State House last month announcing tripartisan support of their cause from local Democratic, Republican, and Libertarian leaders. (Does anything get tripartisan support these days? Has anyone ever even heard of that?)

We sat down recently with Moffat — who served as president of Brown University’s Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) chapter before graduating in 2013 — to talk about when Rhody lawmakers will finally take Peter Tosh’s advice to “legalize it,” and why they should hasten this decision. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.


At this point, the chances of it happening this year are pretty slim, although the door has not been closed. It’s still on the table, obviously, for the tax revenue reasons, and we think that’s still appealing to leadership and to members of the legislature. But there’s also people who want to see more data from Colorado and want to see how it plays out a little bit more, even though we have been seeing a lot of positive things come out of Colorado.

WHAT’S YOUR BEST PREDICTION FOR WHEN IT WILL PASS? I think 2015 looks really good. One, because of the leadership change [when former Speaker Gordon Fox resigned and Representative Nicholas Mattiello was elected to replace him] — that affected pretty much everyone’s issue. Second, because it’s an election year and some of our legislative allies are a little hesitant to go out on a limb at this point.

2015 is not an election year. Vermont is going to be seriously looking at a bill to do something similar in 2015. The governor [there] has already said that he’s potentially in favor of it. I think seeing another New England state make that move is going to help Rhode Island legislators warm up to the idea.

WITH THE EXCEPTION OF DEMOCRAT TODD GIROUX, ALL CURRENT GUBERNATORIAL CANDIDATES HAVE TAKEN A “WAIT AND SEE” APPROACH WHEN ASKED ABOUT LEGALIZATION. DO YOU HAVE ANY PATIENCE FOR THAT ARGUMENT? Not really. Because I think we’ve “waited” and “seen” long enough that prohibition is the worst possible policy. We know that it doesn’t eliminate marijuana use. It doesn’t keep it out of the hands of kids. It only enriches people who sell it illegally.

Personally, I’m interested in this because I think the War on Drugs has been one of the most terrible human rights crises of our modern times. I think it’s been responsible for international violence of epic proportions. It’s been responsible for the mass incarceration of communities of color, which has essentially become the new Jim Crow. And I think it’s responsible for unnecessary overdose deaths. Now, marijuana is not the entire War on Drugs. However, I think marijuana is a cornerstone of the War on Drugs and my hope — and I think a lot of people who fight this fight for social justice reasons see that — ending marijuana prohibition is a way to change and shift the paradigm and how we think about drug policy.

So clearly we know that what we’re doing now doesn’t work at all. And we have seen that Colorado is now five months into their program [and] property crime and violent crime are down, tax revenues are up. The sky has not fallen in any way.

Have there been hiccups that they’ve learned from as they go along? Of course. There’s no rollout of any program like this that goes without [them]. One of the issues is regulating edibles. They’re just starting to roll out those regulations right now. . . requiring labeling of edible dosages. We advocate, on edibles, one dose per edible product. So if you’re going to make a cookie, that’s one dose in that one product. If you want to sell 10 cookies that each have a dose in them, that’s fine. But don’t sell a cookie with 10 doses in it.

So that’s one thing that we’ve learned. And the industry is more than willing work with them on that. They’ve come out and said, “We agree. We need to do a better job of labeling and regulating these edibles.”

LET’S TALK ECONOMICS. WHAT KIND OF REVENUE INCREASE CAN RHODE ISLAND REASONABLY EXPECT IF MARIJUANA IS LEGALIZED? The best estimate we have right now is the report that came out from Open Doors Rhode Island [earlier this year] that projects — this is a pretty wide range — between $21 and 82 million a year. [That comes] from the excise tax, the sales tax, and then other business taxes that would come from the businesses created.

WHAT DO YOU SAY TO THE MOM IN BARRINGTON WHO SAYS LEGALIZATION ISN’T GOOD FOR THE KIDS, THAT IT SENDS THE “WRONG MESSAGE”? I agree that marijuana should be kept away from young people. But to defend the policy that we have now as a way to accomplish that is totally bizarre. [W]hat we have now is daily marijuana use among kids has more than tripled since the early ’90s, under prohibition. At the same time, just last year, we saw historic lows for tobacco and alcohol use among teenagers. If you read what people have written about why we’ve achieved such success, especially with tobacco, they say it’s because we have control. We have control over prices. We have control over how it’s marketed. And we have control over . . . where it’s sold. That’s what we lack with marijuana. It’s sold in our schools. It’s sold without any age restrictions at all; no one has any scruples about selling marijuana to a 16-year-old at this point. If you put it in a licensed business, and that business could lose their license if they sell it to someone who’s underage, that’s a much better incentive than what we have now.

A lot of people think I’m saying that we’re going to eliminate the problem with regulation. That’s not what I’m saying. But I am saying that it’s very easy for kids to get it right now and at least if we take it out of the illegal market, we could have more regulations and sanctions on people who sell to minors.

DO YOU SMOKE MARIJUANA? I use it occasionally.

I prefer marijuana to alcohol in a lot of situations. Some people unwind after a long day with a glass of wine; sometimes, for me, that’s some marijuana. And I think that’s why a lot of people use it.

It’s also something [where] I’m sensitive to inappropriate use. I’ve seen some of my friends go too far with marijuana use. And I think that’s really important for advocates in our movement to recognize, that we need to be distinguishing between moderate, responsible marijuana use and problematic use. Problematic use is when marijuana is getting in the way of your other life goals. If you’re not getting up and going to your job, or if you can’t get out of bed without getting high, or if you can’t take care of basic life things, can’t keep your house in order, then that’s a problem. I think if you can use marijuana without it getting in the way of your other life goals and aspirations, then I don’t think that’s a problem.

Regulate RI will host a Coalition Meeting at the Rochambeau Library (708 Hope St, Providence) on Saturday, June 14 at 2 pm, and a community discussion, “Marijuana Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know,” at the same location on Thursday, June 19 at 6 pm. For more info, go to regulateri.com or facebook.com/RegulateRI.

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