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Will Rhode Island Be the First Legal East Coast State?

The East Coast may have its first contender for recreational cannabis.

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While several states on the East Coast have embraced a limited medical cannabis culture, the big step of complete legalization has yet to be taken despite hotbeds of cannabis culture like New York, Philadelphia and Vermont. But that might change in 2016 if advocacy groups in the tiny state of Rhode Island have anything to say about it. Rhode Island already has a thriving medical market with dispensaries already open, and possession of small amounts of cannabis have been decriminalized in the state, meaning that the stage is already set for implementation of a fully legal cannabis culture, if the state’s voters should choose to do so.

Regulate Rhode Island, the lobbying group behind the New England state’s push for a legal recreational cannabis market, features testimony on their web site from noteworthy Rhode Islanders including veterans, state representatives, businessmen, clergymen, representatives of the NAACP and Sierra Club, and officers of the law regarding the benefits legalization and regulation would offer their home state. These range from job creation to abandonment of the failed war on drugs to fewer people in prison and fewer minorities being harassed, and they’re immediately followed by a brightly colored link reading “Take Action.” By clicking, advocates of legal cannabis are led to contact forms for their legislators, whom they are encouraged to write to in support of The Marijuana Regulation, Control, and Taxation Act. Though the Rhode Island legislature failed to vote on the act before closing their 2015 session, advocates like those involved with Regulate Rhode Island feel that 2016 could be the banner year in which the East Coast finally joins more progressive parts of the country in ending harmful government prohibition.

“We know that whichever state goes first is going to be able to attract more businesses,” Jared Moffat of Regulate Rhode Island and Rhode Island Political Director at the Marijuana Policy Project told The Atlantic. “[They’re] going to attract tourists. It's going to be a huge windfall for whoever goes first.” Rhode Island businesses are rightfully licking their chops at the prospect of duplicating the kind of financial success Colorado’s legalization has created. They’re also excited at the possibility of cannabis-curious tourists from Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, New Hampshire, Maine and Vermont crossing into their state.

In Vermont, recent studies have shown that 1,000,000 cannabis consumers live within easy driving distance of the state. If Rhode Island—even more centrally located than Vermont with its access to the seaboard and the mid-atlantic states—could become, as it hopes, the only place in New England where cannabis can be legally consumed without fear of arrest or harassment, the state could see the highest per-capita benefit of any legal state so far. With its relatively small size and low population, Rhode Island may even offer a chance to address some criticisms of the Colorado system—gentrification immediately comes to mind—with effective state-level government intervention.

As the 2016 election cycle begins to overtake the media, Rhode Island’s opportunity will continue to gain attention. The prospect of legalization on the geographically crowded East Coast offers an interesting prospect that the more spread-out Western U.S. doesn’t. Since none of the currently legal states have borders that abut major population centers, the booms seen in states like Colorado could be modest compared to Rhode Island, which is minutes from Boston and easy driving distance from New York, Philadelphia, Hartford and other cities. According to State Representative Scott Slater, the failure of the measure to pass in the 2015 session isn’t a deterrent for Rhode Island’s chances of legalization. "In Rhode Island, I think it will get a lot more attention in this session than it did in last," he told The Atlantic, “in large part because things are going so well in Colorado and other states. "The sky hasn't fallen in any of those communities."