Daniel Denvir is a Rhode Island-based contributing writer to CityLab and a former staff reporter at Philadelphia City Paper.
There are many reasons the tiny state should rush to be the first on the East Coast to make the sale of recreational pot legal.
I’m excited that Rhode Island, my recently adopted home state, might become the first on the East Coast to legalize a commercial marijuana market. And not just for the obvious reasons, such as changing a war on drugs that disproportionately targets people of color or the option of purchasing and smoking marijuana without fear of jail time.
The state already has legal medical marijuana dispensaries and the possession of small amounts of marijuana is decriminalized. Proposed legislation in Rhode Island would take the next big steps and legalize and regulate the possession, use, cultivation and sales. And there lies the opportunity: If Rhode Island beats its neighboring states to the punch, this lovely but economically slumped sliver of a state could reap serious economic rewards, lure a stampede of tourists, and transform hip but vacancy-plagued downtown Providence into a major marijuana retail center.
Just look what it did for Denver, where the industry is credited for buying up vacant industrial space, or for rural Pueblo County, Colorado, where marijuana-related business accounted for a reported 35 percent of all construction spending last year.
"I think it matters a lot," says Jared Moffat, director of Regulate Rhode Island and Rhode Island Political Director at the Marijuana Policy Project. "We know that whichever state goes first is going to be able to attract more businesses ... it's going to attract tourists. It's going to be a huge windfall for whoever goes first."
Rhode Island would benefit from a head start on its neighbors in establishing and perfecting marijuana cultivation, distribution, retail, and a dizzying array of ancillary businesses—no easy task in a brand-new industry. Colorado's industry, according to a Washington Post analysis, reached $700 million in sales last year and is expected to keep climbing. The impact could be all the greater if Rhode Island becomes the sole spot in New England to legally buy, smoke, and eat marijuana—for fun, not medicine—drawing the jonesing and merely curious masses from Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York and beyond. (At least until their state laws catch up, which could be soon. The most pressing state to beat is Massachusetts, where two separate and competing legalization initiatives could be on the November 2016 ballot. In Vermont, an effort has Governor Peter Shumlin's support but some skeptics in the legislature. There are also strong campaigns underway in Maine and Connecticut.)
"The main thing you lose if you aren't first off the block, especially in the Northeast, is revenue," says state Senator Josh Miller, who sponsored the Rhode Island senate's legislation to tax and regulate weed last session.
It could also be a key tool to draw new residents and business, including much-sought-after Millennials, to downtown Providence—which, some sleepiness aside, is full of great bars, restaurants, theaters, clubs, and art spaces. Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza recently established a "Millennial Task Force to launch a public-engagement campaign and help inform the city's efforts to attract and retain talented young professionals in the capital city," according to a statement. And it just so happens that the Millennial generation in particular is evincing overwhelmingly good vibes toward marijuana: An overwhelming 68 percent, according to a recent Pew survey, support legalization.
Legalization has support from wide-ranging groups, including the state chapters of the Sierra Club and the National Organization for Women, and from the New England Area Conference of the NAACP. But the silence from business has been odd given the possible economic benefits. There has not yet been an independent analysis, but the Marijuana Policy Project estimates that consumption by state residents alone would generate about $58 million a year in excise and sales tax revenue. The jobs created would include retail and cultivation workers, ancillary businesses, construction, and tourism. The Denver Post even has marijuana reviews. (Providence Journal, you know where to find me.)
Government, no doubt, has a role to play in making sure the economic benefits are equitably distributed. In Denver, marijuana shops have been criticized for gentrifying the city's "Green Mile" and raising rents, and disproportionately white and well-to-do ganjapreneurs could displace low-income workers of color who eek out a living selling pot on the black market. But these are issues and inequalities that pervade the American economy as a whole, and are no reason to oppose legalization.
In Vermont, a RAND Corporation report found that the state's potential for pot tourism was "vastly greater" even than in Colorado where, according to the Greeley Tribune, the state has already generated $60.7 million in tax revenue as of mid-year. Beneficiaries of pot-tax revenue include Colorado public schools.
"There are more than 1 million U.S. current (past-month) marijuana users within a two-hour drive of Vermont, and 5 million within 500 miles," RAND found, "so an influx of tourists can be expected immediately after stores open."
Out-of-state residents will be breaking their state laws if they transport marijuana back home where it is not legal. But that's really not Rhode Island's problem. Truly, most everything about legalizing a commercial marijuana market would be to our benefit.
It could be huge as it has for Denver, where marijuana has attracted droves of tourists and new residents. RAND estimates that marijuana sales to out-of-state residents in Vermont could possibly be greater than the total current tourism spending in the state. Indeed, the number of recent pot smokers residing in Vermont's neighboring states, estimated to be about 265,000, is nearly four times greater than the estimated 64,000 past-month smokers that live in state, according to RAND. And, they emphasize, that's not even counting bohemian Montreal.
The tiny size of Rhode Island could make things particularly lucrative in terms of per-capita revenue and economic-development punch. Vermont, RAND writes, "is a small state that is surrounded on all sides by much larger populations that are within easy driving distance." Rhode Island's population is larger than Vermont’s, but its land mass is far smaller—the smallest by area of any state. That makes Rhode Island perhaps the best place possible to legalize in economic terms: a tiny island of marijuana freedom surrounded by prohibitionary behemoths.
Rhode Island's legislation failed to pass during the 2015 session, but it stands a good chance at passing when legislators return. Governor Gina Raimondo has indicated she may be supportive. State House Speaker Nicholas A. Mattiello has been reportedly "cool" to legalization and is viewed by some as an obstacle. But state Representative Scott Slater, who introduced the house legislation, says that he is open-minded.
"In Rhode Island, I think it will get a lot more attention in this session than it did in last," says Slater—in large part because things are going so well in Colorado and other states. "The sky hasn't fallen in any of those communities."
Mattiello declined an interview request but sent CityLab a statement through his spokesperson conveying some ambivalence.
"Marijuana legalization is not on my agenda at this time,” the statement reads. “We held a public hearing on the legislation this year and held it in committee for further study. I anticipate the bill will be reintroduced in the 2016 session and I will take a further look at it."
Fifty-three percent of Americans support legalizing recreational marijuana, according to Pew. In Rhode Island, according to a poll from the advocacy-inclined Public Policy Polling, 57 percent do. That's not surprising, given that Rhode Islanders smoke pot at a higher rate than any other state, according to the most recent data from the federal government's National Survey on Drug Use and Health. A little more than 20 percent of Rhode Islanders over age 12 reported using marijuana in the past 12 months, compared to just 12.34 percent of Americans as a whole. It was only in Washington, D.C., (which is not a state) that more residents reported smoking pot (21.02 percent). Vermont, Oregon, and Colorado came close at around 19 percent, as did Alaska at nearly 20 percent. (This data predates a legal retail market being implemented in Colorado, and such markets slated to be implemented in Oregon and Alaska in 2016; it also predates legalization in D.C., which does not have a retail market.)
Commercial marijuana legalization on the densely packed East Coast would differ markedly from the situations in Washington, Oregon, Colorado, and Alaska because those states don't border their neighbors' major population centers. Given the advantages Rhode Island could realize, pot tourism would not only be enormous, it could remain so even after other states legalize, as RAND discusses in the Vermont context. Consider the branding opportunities.
"Vermont might cement a long-lived brand and reputation as the place from which to buy marijuana, akin to Vermont’s premium brands in coffee, cheese, or ice cream," the researchers at RAND write. "Even if production moved to other states when the nation legalized, Vermont might still be able to capitalize on a reputation for quality by branding marijuana produced elsewhere with its label, or perhaps even importing raw marijuana for some final processing in order to reap a premium from a made-in-Vermont badge." Maybe Rhode Island doesn't have Vermont's green-mountain, artisanal-cheese cache. But it does have abundant and great seafood, some of the nation's most scenic coastline, and a strong tourism industry already in place, supporting an estimated 50,000 jobs.
Rhode Island’s elected officials must understand that commercialization is coming quickly to other states. They would be downright stupid not to do it first.
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