RI Gov. signs bill decriminalizing marijuana
June 13, 2012 boston.com
Chafee announced the signing Wednesday night after the General Assembly ended its formal session. Chafee, an independent, had been expected to sign the bill into law.
Adults caught with an ounce or less of marijuana would face a $150 civil fine. Minors would also have to complete a drug awareness program and community service.
The previous state law made possession of small amounts of marijuana a misdemeanor. Violators had faced possible jail time and fines up to $500.
Fourteen other states have decriminalized possession of limited amounts of marijuana.
Marijuana Decriminalization: Efforts To Relax Pot Rules Gaining Momentum In U.S.
PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- Catharine Leach is married and has two boys, age 2 and 8. She has a good job with a federal contractor and smokes pot most every day.
While she worries that her public support for marijuana decriminalization and legalization could cost her a job or bring the police to her door, the 30-year-old Warwick resident said she was tired of feeling like a criminal for using a drug that she said is far less harmful than the glass or wine or can of beer enjoyed by so many others after a long day's work. Like others around the nation working to relax penalties for possession of pot, she decided to stop hiding and speak out.
"I'm done being afraid," she said. "People in this country are finally coming around and seeing that putting someone in jail for this doesn't make sense. It's just a changing of the time."
Once consigned to the political fringe, marijuana policy is appearing on legislative agendas around the country thanks to an energized base of supporters and an increasingly open-minded public. Lawmakers from Rhode Island to Colorado are mulling medical marijuana programs, pot dispensaries, decriminalization and even legalization. Seventeen states and the District of Columbia now authorize medical marijuana and 14, including neighboring Connecticut and Massachusetts, have rolled back criminal penalties for possession of small amounts of pot.
Rhode Island is poised to become the 15th state to decriminalize marijuana possession. The state's General Assembly passed legislation last week that would eliminate the threat of big fines or even jail time for the possession of an ounce or less of pot. Instead, adults caught with small amounts of marijuana would face a $150 civil fine. Police would confiscate the marijuana, but the incident would not appear on a person's criminal record.
Minors caught with pot would also have to complete a drug awareness program and community service.
Gov. Lincoln Chafee has said he is inclined to sign the legislation.
One of the bill's sponsors, state Rep. John Edwards of Tiverton, has introduced similar proposals in past years but the idea always sputtered in committee. Each year, though, he got more co-sponsors, and the bill passed the House this year 50-24. The state Senate passed it 28-6.
Some supporters of decriminalization say they'd like to go even further.
"America's 50-year war on drugs has been an abysmal failure," said Rep. John Savage, a retired school principal from East Providence. "Marijuana in this country should be legalized. It should be sold and taxed."
Opponents warned of dire consequences to the new policy.
"What kind of message are we sending to our youth? We are more worried about soda – for health reasons – than we are about marijuana," said one opponent, Rhode Island state Rep. John Carnevale a Democrat from Providence.
A survey by Rasmussen last month found that 56 percent of respondents favored legalizing and regulating marijuana. A national Gallup poll last year showed support for legalizing pot had reached 50 percent, up from 46 percent in 2010 and 25 percent in the mid-'90s.
Medical marijuana helped bring marijuana policy into the mainstream back in 1996, when California became the first state to authorize the use of cannabis for medicinal use. Other states followed suit.
"It's now politically viable to talk about these things," said Robert Capecchi, legislative analyst with the Marijuana Policy Project, a Washington, D.C.-based group that supports the reduction or elimination of penalties for medical and recreational pot use. "The public understands that there are substances that are far more harmful – alcohol, tobacco – that we regulate. People are realizing just how much money is being wasted on prohibition."
Colorado and Washington state will hold fall referendums on legalizing marijuana. A ballot question on legalization failed in California in 2010.
This month, Connecticut's governor signed legislation to allow medical marijuana there. Last week, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed cutting the penalty for public possession of small amounts of pot.
Liberal state policies on marijuana have run into conflict with federal prohibition. Federal authorities have shut down more than 40 dispensaries this year in Colorado, even though they complied with state and local law. In Rhode Island, Gov. Lincoln Chafee blocked three dispensaries from opening last year after the state's top federal prosecutor warned they could be prosecuted. Chafee and lawmakers then rewrote the dispensary law to restrict the amount of marijuana dispensaries may have on hand.
Robert DuPont, who served as the nation's drug czar under presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, said Americans should be wary of a slippery slope to legalization. While marijuana may not cause the life-threatening problems associated with heroin, cocaine or methamphetamine, it's far from harmless.
"It is a major drug of abuse," he said. "People ask me what the most dangerous drug is, and I say marijuana. Other drugs have serious consequences that are easy to recognize. Marijuana saps people's motivation, their direction. It's a drug that makes people stupid and lazy. That's in a way more dangerous."
House, Senate Pass Marijuana Decriminalization Bills
The full Senate and House approved legislation sponsored by Sen. Joshua Miller (D-Dist. 28, Cranston, Warwick) and Rep. John G. Edwards (D-Dist. 70, Tiverton, Portsmouth) to eliminate the criminal charge for carrying one ounce or less of marijuana.
Instead, the new law, if approved, would impose a civil penalty of a $150 fine, plus forfeiture of the drug. A third offense within 18 months of the previous offense would be treated as a misdemeanor.
The legislation passed the House in a 50 to 24 vote and passed the Senate in a 28 to 6 vote. Each bill must now travel across the rotunda to pass the opposite chamber in order to become law.
Under the provisions of the Senate and House bills (2012-S 2253Aaa, 2012-H 7092Aaa), offenders who are minors would also have to complete an approved drug awareness program and community service. The Rhode Island Traffic Tribunal would have jurisdiction over these cases.
Currently, possession of even very small amounts of marijuana is a misdemeanor under state law and is punishable by up to one year in jail and a fine of up to $500.
This legislation could save the state millions of dollars each year, clean the judicial dockets for more serious issues and take away the criminal stigma from an otherwise youthful indiscretion, Rep. Edwards said.
“I introduced this bill for three reasons,” Edwards said. “Firstly, I don’t think people should have a charge on their record that stays there forever because of a bad decision made during their teen years. Secondly, the state is going to save a little money from this because we won’t be incarcerating as many people.
"But most importantly, I think this is the right thing to do. Fourteen other states have done this, and Rhode Island and Vermont are the only exceptions in New England right now. This legislation brings equity to the state of Rhode Island."
Senator Miller said the Special Senate Commission to Study the Prohibition of Marijuana hearings that took place in 2010 really made a difference in how some of his colleagues and members of the public viewed the prospect of marijuana decriminalization.
“I think the commission lured out some of the real benefits that can come from this legislation,” said Senator Miller, who served as chairman of the commission. “Not only will it have economic benefits tied to law enforcement, judiciary and incarceration costs, but it will be especially beneficial for young people. During the commission hearings, it was clear that education and treatment was the favored way of dealing with minors’ use of pot.
"No one wants to see opportunities in higher education closed off to someone because of criminal charges related to marijuana.”
The senator also pointed out that teens who can afford a good defense in court tend to fare better than those who can’t.
If enacted, Rhode Island would become the 15th state to decriminalize marijuana.
In 2008, Massachusetts voters carried passage of a similar law with 65 percent of the vote. Connecticut’s legislature established a decriminalization law last year.
The Rhode Island legislation would go into effect on April 1, 2013.
Co-sponsors of the Senate version of the bill include Senators Paul V. Jabour (D-Dist. 5,Providence), Rhoda E. Perry (D-Dist. 3, Providence), Harold M. Metts (D-Dist. 6,Providence) and Donna M. Nesselbush (D-Dist. 15, Pawtucket).
Reps. Frank G. Ferri (D-Dist. 22, Warwick), Brian C. Newberry (R-Dist. 48, North Smithfield, Burrillville), Anastasia P. Williams (D-Dist. 9, Providence) and Peter G. Palumbo (D-Dist. 16, Cranston) co-sponsored the House bill.
Rhode Island May Replace Criminal Marijuana Possession with Fines
PROVIDENCE – The House and Senate Judiciary Committees just voted in favor of two bills that would reduce the penalty for possession of marijuana to a $150 civil fine for most offenses. H 7092 and its companion bill, S 2253, would make possession of less than an ounce of marijuana a civil infraction, similar to a parking ticket, and would remove the criminal penalties that currently exist.
Marijuana possession is now punishable in Rhode Island by up to a $500 fine and up to a year in jail. The bills will now go to their respective floors for a full vote.
A January poll from Public Policy Polling showed an overwhelming 65% of likely voters supported decreasing the penalties for simple possession of less than an ounce of marijuana by removing the possibility of jail time and making the offense a civil citation. Such a change received support from across the political spectrum, with 73% of Democrats, 64% of Republicans, and 60% of independents in favor of the measure. The bills are also supported by a number of social science and public health professionals.
“H 7092 and S 2253 represent the beginning of a new way forward for marijuana policy in the Ocean State – an approach that moves away from punitive law enforcement tactics by placing a greater emphasis on public health,” said Dr. Glenn Loury, professor of social science and economics at Brown University. “In addition to the issuance of a civil violation, the bills require minors who are caught in possession of a small amount of marijuana to attend a drug education course and perform community service. Community service, parental discipline, and honest education on the negative consequences of drug and alcohol use are more humane ways to deal with marijuana than incarcerating adolescent users.”
“My forty years as a public health advocate have convinced me that decriminalizing marijuana possession is a sensible move for both public health and public safety,” said Dr. David Lewis, professor of community health and medicine and founder of the Brown University Center for Alcohol and Addiction Studies. “From a public health perspective, marijuana presents far fewer health risks than cigarettes or alcohol. Public safety will benefit after a shift from criminal to civil penalties for marijuana possession because law enforcement officials will be able to attend to more serious crimes. Contrary to common fears, the evidence from many states shows that decriminalizing possession does not result in a significant rise in marijuana use. I’m grateful that Rhode Island is moving toward a less punitive policy.”
“Committee approval sets the stage for Rhode Island to join the ever growing number of states that have removed the threat of jail time for the non-violent act of simply possessing a small amount of marijuana,” said Robert Capecchi, legislative analyst at the Marijuana Policy Project. “Neighboring Massachusetts and Connecticut have done so as well, with no ill effects. In fact, most of the states that have decriminalized marijuana possession did so in the 1970s, and none of them have suffered in any way by doing so. Rhode Island law makers should be proud to sensibly reform state law.
Legislation would decriminalize marijuana in R.I.
Kate Nussenbaum browndailyhearld.com
Around 15 supporters and one lone dissenter provided testimony on two bills regarding the legality of marijuana possession at a House Committee on Judiciary hearing last night. The first bill, introduced by Rep. John Edwards, D-Tiverton and Portsmouth, would decriminalize the possession of small amounts of cannabis. The second bill, introduced by Rep. Edith Ajello, D-Providence, would make marijuana a legal drug that could be “taxed and regulated.” This is the third year in a row the decriminalization bill has been brought before the committee.
Edwards said decriminalizing marijuana would save the state between $4 million and $11 million, remove the social stigma of being arrested for what many consider a minor offense and provide regional consistency across New England. Marijuana is currently decriminalized in every New England state except Rhode Island, New Hampshire and Vermont, which also have decriminalization bills pending.
If the decriminalization legislation passes, adults found with one ounce or less of the drug would incur a $150 fine but would no longer face jail time. Fourteen states have passed similar legislation, and “none have imploded,” Edwards said.
Casey O’Dea ’14 and Jared Moffat ’13, members of Students for a Sensible Drug Policy, attended the hearing to testify in favor of the bill. Moffat is a Herald opinions editor. Current laws regarding marijuana are ineffective, O’Dea told The Herald. There is no evidence that suggests decriminalization leads to higher use rates, and half the revenue generated from the new fines would help fund programs to educate minors about drug use, he said.
Kathleen Sullivan, director of the BAY Team, Barrington’s drug prevention coalition, was the sole opponent of the proposed legislation to testify at the hearing. She said she was concerned about the drug’s short- and long-term risks, especially for young people. Decriminalizing marijuana may alter how young people perceive it, she said. “When their perception of harm goes down, over time, use rates go up,” she said.
Not enough time has passed to accurately measure the effects of the drug’s decriminalization in other states, Sullivan said. Marijuana may “diminish” students’ academic potential, she added. “What is our workforce going to look like in the future?”
Both Sullivan and Rep. Doreen Costa, D-Exeter and North Kingstown, said they were concerned that decriminalization could lead to increased cases of driving under the influence.
Many Rhode Island residents — including students, parents and law enforcement workers — testified in favor of the bill. The current law is “perceived as a tremendous waste of time and resources,” said Bev Commery, who has been a patrol officer in Providence since 1976.
The time police spent enforcing marijuana prohibition in 2007 was equivalent to nearly 1,000 eight-hour shifts, said Jack Cole, a retired Rhode Island police lieutenant.
More than 40 percent of the court’s time is spent dealing with marijuana charges, despite the fact that “most people incarcerated for marijuana are generally not associated with violent crime,” said Becky Marin, a representative from OpenDoors, a Rhode Island organization that offers support to those who have been incarcerated.
Proponents of the bill also asserted that the current law is discriminatory. College students and people who live in affluent communities are never targeted, Commery said.
Minority communities are currently “hit the hardest” by the state’s marijuana policy, said Robert Capecchi, a legislative analyst for the Marijuana Policy Project, an advocacy group for marijuana policy reform. Blacks and Hispanics are 1.6 times more likely to face arrest and 8 times more likely to be sent to jail for the same act as their white counterparts. Those with criminal records cannot receive financial aid and student loans, live in public housing or hold public-sector jobs, he said.
Steven Brown, executive director of the Rhode Island affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union, told The Herald that public officials, including President Obama, have admitted to smoking marijuana and violating this law. “Its time has come,” he said.
Many of the same supporters testified in favor of Ajello’s legalization bill, though they were less hopeful that it would pass this year.
Capecchi said regulating and taxing the sale of marijuana could be an “incredible financial boon” for the state.
Peter Hammond, a Rhode Island resident, said, “If you ask the people in Woonsocket right now if they want to raise taxes or sell a little marijuana, what would they want to do?”
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.
Rep. John G. Edwards (D—Portsmouth, Tiverton) and Sen. Joshua Miller (D—Cranston)
Speakers urge R.I. to decriminalize marijuana
01:00 AM EDT on Wednesday, May 25, 2011 projo
Disappointing turn out. Where were you rhodies?.........Way to go Cat! You rock! -UA
By Randal Edgar
Journal State House Bureau
PROVIDENCE — Seated before the Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday, Catharine Leach of Warwick described herself as a wife, a mother and a PTA member.
“Look at me, and tell me I should go to jail,” she said.
The 29-year-old office manager was one of nine people to testify in favor of a bill that would decriminalize possession of up to an ounce of marijuana, adding Rhode Island to a list of about a dozen states that have softened their penalties for use of a drug that some argue should be treated like alcohol.
“It’s like coming home and having a glass of wine after a hard day,” Leach said, except that she risks going to jail, while “the drunks don’t go to jail for their vice.”
Fairness was a key theme for many who spoke. Some talked of the legal cloud that follows those who are arrested for marijuana use. Others spoke of higher arrest rates for minorities, even though marijuana use in many instances appears to be higher among whites.
“You can’t separate race from the drug war,” said Bruce Reilly, of Direct Action for Rights and Equality, who said it is time for the war on drugs to be scaled back.
“If we can’t scale back over a bag of weed, we’re not going to scale it back anywhere,” he said.
Another speaker, Nick Zaller, an assistant professor of medicine at Brown University, cited studies that suggest “there is no evidence” that marijuana use leads to use of harder drugs. He also said there is no clear evidence that marijuana use increases in states that legalize the drug for medicinal purposes, as Rhode Island has, or in states that decriminalize it.
Under current law, possession of any amount of marijuana is a misdemeanor punishable by a minimum fine of $200, a maximum fine of $500, and up to a year in jail, although the Special Senate Commission to Study the Prohibition of Marijuana heard repeatedly that few people go to jail for marijuana possession alone.
According the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Joshua Miller, D-Cranston, Rhode Island could save $11.2 million a year by decriminalizing marijuana and avoiding the costs of arresting, detaining and prosecuting people for carrying small quantities. The estimate comes from a Harvard University economist who served on the commission, chaired by Miller.
Not everyone agreed that decriminalization is the way to go.
Joee Lindbeck, a special assistant attorney general, said the attorney general’s office is “concerned that there will be high incidents of driving” while impaired, should the drug be decriminalized.
Lindbeck and Kathleen Sullivan, of the Barrington Substance Abuse Task Force, also said decriminalization could add to a perception among youths that marijuana is not harmful.
“Young people have gotten the message” that driving under the influence of alcohol is not OK, Sullivan said. But not so with marijuana. “They don’t believe that that’s a risk at all,” she said.
The committee voted to hold Senate bill 0270 for further study. Miller sponsored the same bill last year, only to see it held in committee, but he said he has 19 cosponsors this year while a similar bill in the House has 40 cosponsors.
Hey, today is the hearing for the RHODE ISLAND DECRIMINALIZATION bill at the State House, the senate judiciary committee is expected to hear testimony at around 4:00!
RI residents, do your part and show up to support this bill today!-UA
01:00 AM EDT on Tuesday, May 24, 2011
By Randal Edgar
Providence Journal State House Bureau
PROVIDENCE — It was just one year ago that Sen. Joshua Miller’s bill to decriminalize possession of up to an ounce of marijuana got held up in committee, but the Cranston Democrat is hoping for a different result this year as his bill makes an encore appearance.
Senate bill 0270, scheduled for a hearing Tuesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee, would make possession of an ounce or less a civil offense, punishable by a $150 fine. The fine would double repeatedly over time, up to a maximum of $1,000 if it remained unpaid, but there would be no other criminal or civil punishment, except for repeat offenders who, on their third strike, could be charged with a misdemeanor.
Miller, who chaired a commission last year that studied the issue of decriminalizing marijuana, said Monday that he hopes the time spent looking into the matter and the experience of other states will lead to passage this year.
“We had a study commission which recommended these reforms. We’ve now gone beyond two years since Massachusetts enacted similar legislation,” he said. “It’s one of those issues where we sat back and looked at the failures of past approaches and the successes of reforms that have taken place in Massachusetts and other places. I think it’s an appropriate time for Rhode Island to act.”
Miller said he and Rep. John G. Edwards, D-Tiverton, who has introduced a similar bill in the House, may try to come up with matching language in their bills to increase the chance of passage in both chambers.
Under current law, possession of any amount of marijuana is a misdemeanor punishable by a minimum fine of $200, a maximum fine of $500, and up to a year in jail, although the Miller commission heard repeatedly that few people go to jail for marijuana possession alone.
While supporters of decriminalization say the change would save money and is part of a national trend, opponents have argued that such a change makes marijuana more legally and socially acceptable for young people.
Thirteen states, including Massachusetts, have decriminalized possession of “small amounts” of marijuana, according to the Senate press office.