Proposed Westerly Cannabis Ordinance Draws Response From ACLU Of Rhode Island

Proposed Westerly Cannabis Ordinance Draws Response From ACLU Of Rhode Island
Proposed Westerly Cannabis Ordinance Draws Response From ACLU Of Rhode Island

WESTERLY — The ACLU of Rhode Island has asked Westerly’s Town Council to change a proposed ordinance regulating cannabis use in parks and public places, arguing the draft language exceeds what is allowed by state law.

State law allows municipalities to adopt ordinances imposing bans and restrictions on the “smoking or vaporizing of cannabis in public places.”

ACLU Executive Director Steven Brown said in a Dec. 1 letter to the town that the organization is concerned with wording in the proposed ordinance, which prohibits, absent special permission from the town, the “sale and use of any and all … cannabis products in all parks, playgrounds, and recreational centers owned by the town.”

By banning the use of “any and all” cannabis products in these locations, Brown argues, the proposal’s language goes beyond the authority given by state law.

“The state’s new law does not authorize municipalities to restrict the non-smoking or non-vaping consumption of cannabis (e.g., the use of edibles) in public places,” Brown said. “In addition, how the town would go about enforcing a broader ban than what the state law authorizes raises independent concerns.”

The ACLU and Black Lives Matter RI PAC also cited Westerly’s proposed ordinance in a Dec. 14 letter to the state’s Cannabis Control Commission.

“Because we are deeply concerned that this implementation is in direct conflict with the statute and, furthermore, that it would inappropriately expand police enforcement of the law in a way that is bound to adversely affect people of color and poorer communities, we ask that the commission take prompt steps to respond to, and work to halt, these municipal efforts,” Brown and BLM RI PAC President Harrison Tuttle wrote.

Some local ordinances or proposed rules are prohibiting not only the smoking or vaping of cannabis in public, but also its “use,” which would presumably ban, for example, the consumption of cannabis in edible form, the groups argue.

In Westerly, “Responding to a letter sent by the ACLU of Rhode Island raising concerns that the language’s scope exceeded what was authorized by the Rhode Island Cannabis Act, the town solicitor rejected the view that the statute limited municipalities in this way and further claimed that the more expansive language the town was proposing had been adopted by other municipalities,” the groups said. “This enlargement of the statute’s specific language to regulate more than smoking and vaping is extremely troubling for a number of reasons.”

The language proposed by the town, they claim, authorizes the scenario of police stops and searches of individuals on the street based solely on the belief that they are under the influence of cannabis, and thus may be “using” or “consuming” cannabis in public.

“One of the key goals of the state’s Cannabis Act was to address long-standing and unconscionable discriminatory impact that marijuana criminalization has had on poorer communities and communities of color. Westerly’s proposed action, and that of any other municipalities adopting similar ordinances, flagrantly flouts that goal,” the ACLU said.

If the state had wanted to give local officials the ability to broadly limit the “use” or “consumption” of cannabis in public, it could have easily done so, but did not. “The General Assembly very clearly and deliberately specified vaping and smoking in public as the narrow conduct that municipalities could address,” the ACLU said.

The groups also argue a ban on highly visible actions like vaping or smoking is much easier to enforce than prohibition on “use” or “consumption.”

In addition to changes to local laws to regulate cannabis in parks, Westerly’s Town Council also is tackling an ordinance that would govern retail sales of recreational marijuana and cannabis products within the town’s borders.

The version before the council would limit cannabis retail shops to no less than 200 feet from any schools or day care, residences, places of worship or hospitals. One other town, Johnston, has the 200-foot restriction.

“The solicitor’s office has been heavily involved with this, with input,” Council President William Aiello said. “Obviously, people are watching this.”

The state law does enable the town or municipality to essentially prohibit the smoking and vaping of cannabis, Solicitor William Conley said. State statute, he said, also enables the town to regulate the use of cannabis as it does with alcohol and tobacco, such as banning drinking at the park.

“The state law does not prohibit you from also addressing cannabis use on playgrounds through edibles as well, so that is included, and that’s our response to the ACLU,” Conley said.

Aiello also noted that other communities have included that language.

Council members focused much of their discussion Dec. 4 on the zoning aspect of the retail sales ordinance. Councilor Mary Scailabba said the town should revise its proposed ordinance to more closely match language in the state law.

“If we’re going to write something, we need to follow the guideline that’s already in place,” she said.

But Councilor Joy Cordio disagreed.

“We do not have to follow the state guidelines, we can impose stricter laws,” she said. “It is easier to ease restrictions if necessary in the future than to try to scale them back.”

Rhode Islanders overwhelmingly supported allowing marijuana businesses during a referendum last November following legalization in the Ocean State.

Across Rhode Island, 31 of the state’s 39 municipalities were asked to weigh in on the measure last fall, with most passing easily. Under the state law, the industry will be heavily regulated with a Cannabis Control Commission helping provide oversight.

Westerly voters passed the measure with 55% approval. In neighboring communities, 54.8% of Charlestown voters approved it; 58.2% in Richmond and 60.8% of Hopkinton voters were in favor.

“This is new ground for everybody in the state, nobody knows what the impact is going to be,” Cordio said.

Councilor Robert Lombardo said his colleagues should visit some retail cannabis locations in the state.

“It’s not something that’s new, or uncharted ground. People wanted it here,” he said.

Town Manager Shawn Lacey, Westerly’s former chief of police, said he expects more feedback on the ordinance from a public safety perspective.

“The Chiefs’ Association statewide is dead against any of this,” he said. “It is still illegal federally … don’t assume the state has this down to a science, the cart is definitely before the horse on this.”



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