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Letter: Why We Want Marijuana Decriminalization

A letter to the editor from Rep. John G. Edwards (D—Portsmouth, Tiverton) and Sen. Joshua Miller (D—Cranston)

June 21, 2011 cranston.patch.com

 

Just last week, the legislature in Connecticut debated and passed legislation that removes the criminal penalty for possession of a small amount of marijuana, replacing it with a civil fine. Connecticut Governor Dan Malloy, who championed marijuana decriminalization, is expected to sign the bill into law. The Rhode Island General Assembly should follow the lead of our neighbors and pass H 5031/S 270, our companion marijuana decriminalization bills.

Our bills, like those approved in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and 12 other states, would take a modest step to make the penalties for marijuana possession more proportional to the offense and to allow police to focus their time on more serious matters. Rather than facing up to a year in jail, adults who possess up to an ounce of marijuana would pay a civil fine of $200. The money would be divided between funding drug education programs throughout the state and going back to the municipalities that issued the citations. Minors would receive the same civil fine, but their parents would also be notified and the minors would be required to complete a drug education program and community service.

Fourteen states, from Maine to Minnesota to Mississippi, have removed the possibility of jail time from simple possession of marijuana, and the sky has not fallen. Most of the laws have been on the books for more than two decades, and they have not proven controversial. Use rates in states that have decriminalized marijuana possession are just as varied as those with criminal penalties for simple possession. In fact, a 2001 National Research Council study sponsored by the U.S. government comparing use rates in states that have and have not decriminalized marijuana found “little apparent relationship between the severity of sanctions prescribed for drug use and prevalence or frequency of use.”

Decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana will save our state millions of dollars. Written testimony submitted to both the House and Senate Judiciary Committees by Harvard economist Jeff Miron and others estimates that passage of marijuana decriminalization would result in budgetary savings of between 4 and 11 million dollars. This revenue is the direct result of police time saved by allowing our vital law enforcement men and women to simply issue a citation for simple possession as opposed to making an arrest, which requires many more man-hours. Although $11.2 million will not solve all of our budget woes, it certainly does not hurt.

In addition to budgetary savings, decriminalizing small possession of marijuana allows our limited law enforcement to focus on crimes of violence and against property. With Providence and other communities set to potentially lay off police officers, it is vital that we give our brave men and women of the shield all the tools they need to focus their efforts on serious crimes. By reforming the punishment for simple possession of marijuana, a non-violent crime, our law enforcement can focus on the criminals who truly damage our communities through acts of violence and destruction.

Besides financially benefiting our state and helping increase public safety, decriminalizing possession of a small amount of marijuana is socially just. A criminal conviction is too harsh a consequence for possessing a substance that is less harmful than alcohol. Besides possible jail time, a criminal conviction or arrest carry with them a damaging stigma. One conviction can lead to a lifetime of consequences that range from denial of employment to being ineligible for student aid. Do we really wish to deny financial assistance for education to a person just for using a substance that has been used by about 100 million Americans, including the past three presidents? We do not think so.

Unfortunately, these harsh collateral penalties are disproportionately felt by Rhode Island’s minority populations. Intentional or not, it is important to recognize that although whites and minorities have similar use rates, according to a report by OpenDoors, blacks and Hispanics in Rhode Island are arrested at a rate of 1.6 times that of white Rhode Islanders. Amazingly, minorities are eight times as likely as whites to be sentenced to prison for marijuana possession. Decriminalizing possession of a modest amount of marijuana will help alleviate this unjust disparity.

The time has come for Rhode Island to decriminalize possession of up to an ounce of marijuana. This idea is not radical, nor is it uncommon. It will save our state millions of dollars while allowing our precious law enforcement resources to focus on violent crimes and crimes against property. Advocating for and passing decriminalization should not be confused with being soft on crime. Decriminalization is smart policy.

Signed,
Rep. John G. Edwards (D—Portsmouth, Tiverton) and Sen. Joshua Miller (D—Cranston)

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