Legalization of Marijuana in Rhode Island
Over the past two decades, states across the country have legalized or decriminalized marijuana for medical and recreational use.(a) In Rhode Island, medical marijuana is now legal, and possession of small amounts of the drug has been decriminalized. Recently, attention has turned to whether Rhode Island should follow the lead of states like Colorado and Washington and fully legalize and regulate marijuana.1
Enforcing the current marijuana law has both financial and social costs for the state, but legalization comes with costs of its own. In this report, we analyze the likely impact of legalizing marijuana in Rhode Island, focusing on potential economic consequences, social justice concerns, and public health considerations. We draw on evidence from other states that allow the medical and recreational use of marijuana to understand their experiences with legalization.
The National Trend Toward Legalization
The legal use of marijuana has expanded significantly over the past two decades. San Francisco passed the first medical marijuana initiative in 1991, which was subsequently extended across California in 1996.2 Currently, 21 states have medical marijuana laws, 16 states have decriminalized marijuana possession, and 4 states plus the District of Columbia have legalized recreational adult use of the drug.3
(a) Decriminalization is when the possession of small amounts of marijuana is considered a civil offense with less harsh penalties and no jail time (not unlike many traffic offenses). Legalization is when the sale, possession, and use of marijuana for recreational purposes is fully legal and regulated by the state.
Fig. 1 Marijuana Laws in the U.S.
Source: Marijuana Policy Project.3
Rhode Island’s marijuana laws have changed considerably in the past decade. In 2006, the state legalized and began regulating medical marijuana.4 In 2012, the legislature decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana (under 1 ounce).(b) In March 2014, bills were first introduced in the Rhode Island General Assembly to legalize, tax, and regulate recreational marijuana use (S510 and H5777).6 Other states in the Northeast, including both Massachusetts and Connecticut, are also considering legalization, which would likely affect law enforcement and potential tax revenues in Rhode Island.
Changes in marijuana laws are in part a result of increasing levels of public support for legalization over the past 50 years. The majority of Americans (58%) and Rhode Islanders (57%) now support the legalization of marijuana.7 Support is even higher (71%) among young Americans (ages 18-34).7 These levels of public support are driven in part by the recognition that marijuana is widely used. The 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that an estimated 22 million Americans age 12 and older have used marijuana in the last month.8
(b) The current law in Rhode Island states that adults found in possession of 1 ounce of marijuana or less cannot be pursued criminally, but are subject to a fine of $150 as well as confiscation of the marijuana. People under age 18 must pay the $150 fine, take a drug education course, and complete community service hours. Anyone found with over 1 ounce of marijuana can still serve up to a year in prison and face a fine of up to $500.5
Fig. 2 National Public Support for Marijuana Legalization, 1969-2015
Source: Jones, 2015. Anderson, 2015. 7
Inequality and the Social Costs of Criminalization
One major argument for legalization is that the criminalization of marijuana results in a large number of low-level, nonviolent offenders being caught up in the criminal justice system. In 2007, prior to decriminalization, marijuana possession accounted for 91% of all marijuana arrests and 60% of all drug arrests in Rhode Island.9 A marijuana arrest or conviction can have lasting negative impacts. In addition to the financial costs associated with fines and legal fees and the loss of wages while in jail,10 people arrested for drug possession can lose their jobs, lose access to financial aid to support their education, be evicted from their homes, or lose custody of their children, in some cases without ever being convicted of a crime.10
Racial minorities are much more likely to be arrested for marijuana offenses, despite the fact that they are less likely to use drugs than whites.11 Although overall marijuana arrest rates have declined in Rhode Island since decriminalization, racial disparities continue. Prior to decriminalization, African Americans were not only more likely to be arrested for marijuana but were also eight times more likely to go to prison for a marijuana offense than whites.12 As of 2014, African Americans make up 29% of those arrested for marijuana distribution and 24% of those arrested for marijuana possession in Rhode Island, although they make up only 7% of the state’s population.13
There is some evidence that legalizing and regulating marijuana may help correct these racial disparities. A report on arrest rates in Colorado, which legalized recreational marijuana in November 2012, reveals that marijuana-related charges in the state (excluding Denver) decreased by 80% between 2010 and 2014.14 While legalization has not completely erased racial disparities in the state, both the raw number of African Americans arrested for marijuana-related crimes and the ratio of arrests between African Americans and whites, particularly for distribution, have decreased.14
Fig. 3 Racial Disparities in Marijuana Arrests in Colorado, 2010-2014
Source: Gettman, 2015. 14
The Economic Impact of Legalizing, Taxing, and Regulating Marijuana
Reduced Criminal Justice Costs
Legalization and decriminalization can substantially cut city and state expenditures by reducing the resources devoted to the policing, arrest, prosecution, and incarceration of people for marijuana use and distribution. In Colorado the total number of court cases for marijuana possession, distribution, and cultivation dropped after the drug was legalized in November 2012, from 9,749 in 2010 to 1,537 in 2014.14 Specifically, marijuana possession cases dropped from 8,883 in 2012 to 1,464 in 2014.14
After legalization, Washington saw a 58% decrease in marijuana “incidents” (investigations that may or may not result in arrests) as well as a significant decrease in arrests for marijuana distribution.15 Although there has been a dramatic decrease in marijuana-related arrests and court cases in these states after legalization, some cases remain due to the black market not being completely pushed out.14
Though it likely does not outweigh the criminal justice savings, Rhode Island would lose the revenue it currently raises from marijuana fines if the drug were legalized. In 2014, 2,951 marijuana tickets were issued in the state, each with a maximum fine of $150, for a total of as much as $443,000.16
Revenue from Marijuana Taxation
One of the key distinctions between Rhode Island’s current system of decriminalization and full legalization is that legalization allows a state to regulate and tax marijuana, which can bring in significant revenue. From 2015 through the first quarter of 2016, Colorado earned over $97 million in total revenue from marijuana taxes, fees, and licensing.16
Fig. 4 State Regulation and Taxation of Marijuana
Sources: State of Washington, 2011.33 State of Alaska, 2014.39 Oregon State Legislature, 2015.32 Silbuagh, 2015.34 Silbuagh & Sobetski, 2014.37 Zepernick & Pramuk, 2015.38
Maximizing the revenue from marijuana taxes requires a careful balance. If taxes on legalized marijuana are too high, regulated businesses may not be profitable and the black market can remain strong and intact. Ideally, states want to create a monopoly over the market by finding tax structures that provide revenue without making the product too expensive for legal vendors and purchasers. A comparison of the taxation models in Colorado and Washington suggests that slightly lower tax rates may make the legal marijuana market more competitive, bringing in tax revenue that might otherwise be lost to a continued black market.
Pushing out the black market with the legal, regulated market is also critical for the state to see the cost savings from declining marijuana arrests and prosecutions. In order to maximize the savings to the criminal justice system, the legal market has to be economically competitive with the black market.
Taxation brings in revenue but also costs money to enforce. The state must fund a regulatory and tax collection structure, although the exact cost is difficult to estimate and varies depending on the size of the market. New York and Massachusetts, two states currently exploring legalization, had legislation introduced in 2016 that earmarked $5 million and $2.5 million, respectively, for marijuana regulation. However, both of these numbers were simply estimates and not exact figures for what it would cost the states to regulate marijuana. Washington, which has been regulating marijuana since 2012, has appropriated no more than $1.25 million every three months to its Liquor Control Board for the regulation of marijuana.
Fig. 5 Comparing Marijuana Taxation Models
Source: The Economist, 2016.35
Text Box 1 Comparing Marijuana Taxation Models
Economic Benefits from Marijuana Tourism
If Rhode Island were the first state in the region to legalize marijuana, “marijuana tourism” could offer an additional economic benefit, at least in the short term.18 In a 2014 survey of tourists visiting Colorado, 16% said they were more likely to visit the state “because of legal recreational weed sales.” In addition to marijuana, these tourists spend money on food, lodging, entertainment, and transportation. Thus, marijuana tourism would not only mean more tax dollars, but an increase in spending benefitting workers and businesses across multiple sectors in the state.
Massachusetts and Connecticut have among the highest rates of consumption of marijuana in the country (14.6% and 12.5% of the population in these states, respectively, have used marijuana in the last month), which suggests strong potential for marijuana tourism in Rhode Island.19 The important factor here is timing, as the increase in tourists would only be substantial as long as no other states in the region legalize marijuana. If other nearby states legalize marijuana first, it could increase the amount of marijuana in Rhode Island that was legally purchased in another state and might draw some tourists away from visiting Rhode Island.
Public Health Concerns About Marijuana
Although many social and economic benefits may result from legalizing recreational marijuana, lawmakers must also consider the potential public health consequences. Contrary to what some people believe, marijuana users can become dependent on the drug. The probability of a current user developing a dependence on cannabis during their lifetime is about 9%.20 For adolescents the rate is much higher: the lifetime probability of dependence in people who start using marijuana in their teen years is estimated to be about 17%.21
Smoking marijuana damages the lungs and is associated with a wide range of respiratory complications from bronchitis to asthma.22,23 A 2013 study found that marijuana smokers have approximately four times as much deposited tar in the lower respiratory tract as tobacco smokers, because they take larger, deeper puffs and hold their breath four times longer than cigarette smokers.22 The association between lung cancer and marijuana use is still unclear. Marijuana smoke contains many of the same components as tobacco smoke, including carcinogens.24 Although some studies have suggested that marijuana may have anti-carcinogenic effects,24 further research in this area is needed.
Marijuana can also damage the brain. One study found that heavy marijuana users who started in their teen years lost up to eight IQ points – losses that could not be regained.25 However, users who began as adults did not exhibit this IQ decline.25
Use of marijuana while pregnant can be harmful to the prenatal development of the fetus and can result in lower birth weight.26 Studies in mice suggest that THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, can affect areas of the brain that may cause negative long-term impacts on emotional, cognitive, and behavioral development.28 Although studies in humans are very limited, one study of prenatal marijuana exposure in humans found that it did not induce deficits in vital functions after birth or cause major anatomical deformities.27 Exposure to marijuana in breast milk has also been suspected to cause neurological consequences within the child’s first year.27
Another marijuana-related public health concern is traffic accidents caused by drivers under the influence of the drug. In Colorado, where marijuana is legal and is sold commercially, 94 of the 488 traffic fatalities in 2014 involved a driver that tested positive for THC.29 More than three-quarters of incidents classified as “driving under the influence” involved marijuana, and in 40% of cases marijuana was the only drug involved.29 However, there is no test that can determine if the drivers were currently under the influence or intoxicated, only that they had consumed marijuana recently.
The Impact of Legalization On Marijuana Use & Public Health
In general, states with higher rates of marijuana use tend to be states that have more relaxed marijuana laws, though whether one is the cause of the other is unclear. The ten states with the highest rates of adolescent marijuana use within the past month – which include Rhode Island in third place – all either permit legal marijuana use or have decriminalized the drug.30 The ten states with the lowest adolescent usage rates do not even permit medical marijuana.
Fig. 6 States with the Highest Rates of Marijuana Use
Source: Hughes, Lipari, & Williams, 2013.30 Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality, 2014.40
It is not clear whether higher rates of use lead to more relaxed laws, or whether laws making marijuana more available lead to higher rates of use. Currently both college students and adults in Colorado are significantly more likely to use marijuana than their counterparts in the rest of the country, but this may have been true prior to the loosening of the state’s marijuana laws.(c) A study of changes across 23 years found that states that adopted medicinal marijuana policies had a greater prevalence of marijuana use among adolescents.31 However, the usage rates did not change significantly after the laws were passed, indicating that these states already had high rates of teen use prior to allowing marijuana for medicinal purposes.
(c) 29% of college students in Colorado used marijuana within the past month, compared to the national average of 19%. Among adults age 26 or older in Colorado, 10.1% used marijuana in 2013, while the national average was 5.5%.29
Similar questions are raised by the data from Colorado and Washington. After Colorado legalized recreational marijuana in November 2012, the percentage of people who used marijuana at least once in the past month increased by 11% among college students and 27% among adults 26 and older.29 However, usage had already been on the rise in the years preceding legalization, so it is not clear what role legalization played in this increase.
Fig. 7 Marijuana Use in Colorado
Source: Wong & Clarke, 2015.29
In Washington, use during the past month increased among some age groups, particularly 18 to 24-year-olds, between 2011 and 2014. However, a closer look shows that the biggest leaps were from 2012 to 2013, even though recreational marijuana sales in the state did not begin until July of 2014.15
Fig. 8 Marijuana Use in Washington
Source: Campo, et al., 2016.15
Until more states legalize marijuana and more data are collected, the impact of legalization on rates of use remains unclear. The same is true for the impact on public health. In Colorado, marijuana-related emergency room visits and hospitalizations climbed 29% and 38%, respectively, in the year the commercial sale of marijuana was legalized.29 However these rates were already on the rise prior to full legalization. In Washington, marijuana-related calls to the Poison Control Center were fairly stable between the years of 2011 and 2013, but jumped in 2014 after marijuana was legalized.15 This may mean that more people are having negative reactions to marijuana, but could also be due to a greater willingness to call for help now that marijuana is legal and there are no legal consequences to fear from making the call.
The potential for increased traffic fatalities related to marijuana is also a concern. In Colorado, the average number of traffic deaths related to marijuana increased 48% from the period before the commercialization of medical marijuana (2006-2008) to the post-commercialization period (2009-2012), and then again by 41% after the legalization of recreational marijuana (2013-2014).29 In Washington, the percentage of traffic fatalities related to marijuana increased from 2013 to 2014, but this change was not found to be statistically significant because of the small total number of cases.15
Fig. 9 Marijuana Use in Rhode Island
Source: Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality, 201440
Using Marijuana Tax Revenue to Minimize the Negative Impacts of Legalization
States that have legalized marijuana have used some of the income generated from taxes and fees to help offset the potential social and health costs of legalization. These measures include funding marijuana and drug prevention research at state universities and supporting drug abuse and prevention programs. States have also used money generated from marijuana taxes to benefit municipalities by providing additional funding for education, law enforcement, and other services.
Oregon dedicates 20% of its marijuana tax revenues to the Mental Health, Alcoholism, and Drug Services Account to help treat and prevent mental health issues involving marijuana.32 The state also devotes 5% of revenues to the Oregon Health Authority to maintain alcohol and drug abuse prevention and treatment programs. Other revenues are used for purposes not explicitly related to marijuana: 40% are allocated to education and 25% to state and local law enforcement.
Like Oregon, Washington dedicates some of its marijuana revenues to combating drug abuse.33 Ten percent is allocated to the Department of Public Health for education and support around issues of marijuana use, and 15% goes to the Department of Social and Health Services division of Behavioral Health and Recovery to help with drug abuse and prevention programs.
Washington also dedicates a small portion of its revenues to research on the effects of marijuana.33 One percent of the income generated from marijuana taxes and fees goes to the state’s public universities for research on the short and long-term effects of marijuana use. Washington also set aside funds to conduct a cost-benefit evaluation of how the marijuana business is affecting the state, and to create and administer a healthy youth survey every two years to monitor youth health and achievement in the wake of legalization.
In Colorado, all tax revenue goes into a Marijuana Tax Cash Fund, from which it is redistributed.34 The state dedicated the first $40 million in excise tax revenue to building new schools. Revenue above that is directed to a multitude of governmental agencies including the Department of Public Health and Environment, which is responsible for alcohol and drug prevention and abuse programs; the Departments of Human Services, Education, and Law; and the Governor’s Office.
The Future of Marijuana in Rhode Island
Existing research and data suggest that the enforcement of current marijuana laws is economically costly to Rhode Island and leads to discriminatory outcomes in the criminal justice system. Given the high rates of marijuana use in the state and the region, Rhode Island is also missing out on millions of dollars in potential tax revenue as well as possible marijuana tourism opportunities. However there are many public health considerations to be taken into account and it is not yet clear whether legalization increases rates of marijuana use or how it affects long-term health outcomes.
If the state pursues legalization, it might consider following the path of Colorado, Washington, and Oregon and dedicating income from marijuana taxes and fees to abuse prevention, treatment, and research programs. Given the already high rates of marijuana use in Rhode Island, regardless of whether or not the drug is legalized, additional resources could help those in need of recovery services and prevent any further increases in use, particularly among adolescents. In addition to addressing public health concerns, tax revenues from legalized marijuana could also be appropriated to multiple state sectors in need of support, such as public schools, higher education, infrastructure, and economic development.
1. The Associated Press. 2016. “Bill to regulate recreational marijuana to be heard this week.” WPRI 12 Eyewitness News, February 7. Salit, Richard. 2016. “A push for legal marijuana at the Rhode Island State House.” The Providence Journal, February 11.
2. NORML. No date. “Marijuana Law Reform Timeline.” Retrieved April 2, 2016.
3. Marijuana Policy Project. No date. “State Policy.” Retrieved February 23, 2016.
4. Rhode Island Department of Health. 2006. “Details for Regulation Rules and Regulations Related to the Medical Marijuana Program (4042).” Chapter 21-28.6 of the Rhode Island General Laws. Providence, RI. Rhode Island Department of Health. 2010. “Rules and Regulations Related to the Medical Marijuana Program, [R21-28.6-MMP].” Providence, RI.
5. State of Rhode Island General Assembly. 2012. “An Act Relating to Food and Drugs – Uniform Controlled Substances Act.” 2012-S2253.
6. State of Rhode Island General Assembly. 2015. “An Act Relating to Food and Drugs – Taxation and Regulation of Marijuana.” 2015-H5777.
8. Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality. 2015. Behavioral Health Trends in the United States: Results from the 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
9. Federal Bureau of Investigation. 2007. Uniform Crime Reports [datafile]. Washington, DC.
10. Dewan, Shaila. 2015. “When Bail is Out of Defendant’s Reach, Other Costs Mount.” The New York Times, June 10.
11. Golub, Andrew, Bruce D. Johnson, and Eloise Dunlap. 2006. “The Growth in Marijuana Use among American Youths during the 1990s and the Extent of Blunt Smoking.” Journal of Ethnicity in Substance Abuse, 4(3.4): 1-21.
12. Open Doors. 2010. “The Criminal Justice Costs of Marijuana Prohibition in Rhode Island.” Providence, RI.
13. Federal Bureau of Investigation. 2014. Crime in the United States (CIUS) [datafiles]. Washington, DC.
14. Gettman, Jon. 2015. “Marijuana Arrests in Colorado after the Passage of Amendment 64.” New York, NY: Drug Policy Alliance. Denver was not included in the analysis because of differences between local ordinances and State Criminal Code.
15. Campo, Joe, et al. 2016. Monitoring Impacts of Recreational Marijuana Legalization: 2015 Update Report. Olympia, WA: Forecasting and Research Division, Washington State Office of Financial Management.
16. Rhode Island Judiciary. 2014. Rhode Island Judiciary Annual Report. Providence, RI.
17. Colorado Department of Revenue. 2016. Colorado Marijuana Tax Data [data files]. Denver, CO. Retrieved April 3, 2016.
18. Marijuana Policy Project. 2015. “Potential Tax Revenue from a Regulated Marijuana Market: Rhode Island.” Washington, DC.
19. Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality. 2012. “2011-2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: National Maps of Prevalence Estimates, by State.” Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
20. Lopez-Quintero, Catalina, et al. 2011. “Probability and Predictors of Transition from First Use to Dependence on Nicotene, Alcohol, Cannabis, and Cocaine: Results of the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions (NESARC).” Drug and alcohol dependence, 115(1): 120-130.
21. Hall, Wayne and Louisa Degenhardt. 2009. “Adverse Health Effects of Non-Medical Cannabis Use.” The Lancet, 374(9698): 1383-1391.
22. Tashkin, Donald P. 2013. “Effects of Marijuana Smoking on the Lung.” Annals of the American Thoracic Society, 10(3): 239-247.
23. Tetrault, Jeanette M., et al. 2007. “Effects of Marijuana Smoking on Pulmonary Function and Respiratory Complications: A Systematic Review.” Archives of Internal Medicine, 167(3): 221-228.
24. Mehra, Reena, et al. 2006. “The Association between Marijuana Smoking and Lung Cancer: A Systematic Review.” Archives of Internal Medicine, 166(13): 1359-1367.
25. Meier, Madeline, et al. 2012. “Persistent Cannabis Users Show Neuropsychological Decline from Childhood to Midlife.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 109(40): 2657-2664.
26. Brown, Stephanie J., et al. “Use of Cannabis during Pregnancy and Birth Outcomes in an Aboriginal Birth Cohort: A Cross-Sectional, Population-Based Study.” BMJ open, 6(2): e010286.
27. Alpar, Alan, Vincenzo Di Marzo, and Tibor Harkany. 2016. “At the Tip of an Iceberg: Prenatal Marijuana and its Possible Relation to Neuropsychiatric Outcome in the Offspring.” Biological Psychiatry, 79(7): e33-e45.
28. Roth, Cheryl K., Lori A. Satran, and Shauna M. Smith. 2015. “Marijuana Use in Pregnancy.” Nursing for women’s health, 19(5): 431-437.
29. Wong, Kevin and Chelsey Clarke. 2015. The Legalization of Marijuana in Colorado: The Impact. Denver, CO: Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Investigative Support Center.
30. Hughes, Arthur, Rachel N. Lipari, and Matthew Williams. 2013. “State Estimates of Adolescent Marijuana Use and Perceptions of Risk of Harm from Marijuana Use: 2013 and 2014.” The CBHSQ Report. Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
31. Hasin, Deborah S., et al. 2015. “Medical Marijuana Laws and Adolescent Marijuana Use in the USA from 1991 to 2014: Results from Annual, Repeated Cross-Sectional Surveys.” The Lancet Psychiatry, 2(7): 601-608.
32. Oregon State Legislature. 2015. “Cannabis Regulation.” Chapter 475B.
33. State of Washington. 2011. “An Act Relating to Marijuana.” Initiative Measure No. 502h.
34. Silbuagh, Larson. 2015. “Distribution of Marijuana Tax Revenue.” Colorado Legislative Council Staff Issue Brief, 15(10).
35. The Economist. 2016. “Reeferegulatory challenge: A growing number of countries are deciding to ditch prohibition. What comes next?” February 13.
36. The Economist. 2016. “Marijuana and the disjointed states of America.” February 15.
37. Silbuagh, Larson, and Greg Sobetski. 2014. “State Taxes on Marijuana.” Colorado Legislative Council Staff Issue Brief, 14(16).
38. Zepernick, Bill and Clare Pramuk. 2015. “Marijuana Regulation.” Colorado Legislative Council Staff Issue Brief, 15(04).
39. State of Alaska. 2014. “An Act to Tax and Regulate the Production, Sale and Use of Marijuana.” Initiative Measure AS 17.38.
40. Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality. 2014. “National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Comparison of 2012-2013 and 2013-2014 Population Percentages (50 States and the District of Columbia).” Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
What would be the potential economic, social, and health impacts if Rhode Island were to legalize marijuana?
Type of Research