Presuming both houses of the Rhode Island General Assembly cross-approve their matching bills and Gov. Lincoln Chafee signs the bill or takes no action, Rhode Island will become the latest state to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana. Like Rhode Island’s neighbors — Massachusetts and Connecticut — adults caught with less than an ounce of pot would receive a civil citation, similar to a traffic ticket.
Under the Rhode Island bill, introduced by Rep. John Edwards, D-Tiverton, the drug would be subject to confiscation and violators would face a $150 fine. Currently, those caught with any amount of marijuana in Rhode Island face arrest, up to a year in jail and a fine of up to $500. Under a state law approved by Massachusetts voters in 2008, violators are subject to confiscation and a $100 ticket.
While the Rhode Island bill lessens the penalties for personal use of marijuana, it also includes some good provisions to deter repeat offenses, impaired driving and use by minors. Under Edwards’ bill, someone caught with marijuana three times in 18 months would face arrest and up to 30 days in prison. Those driving under the influence remain subject to arrest. In addition, minors caught with marijuana would be forced to attend a drug awareness program and perform community service. Those possessing more than an ounce of pot would still be subject to criminal charges and arrest.
While some are concerned that marijuana decriminalization leads to increased use, studies have shown that is simply not the case in states that have decriminalized pot. A January substance use survey of Tiverton High School students found that 44 percent — 25 percent higher than the national average — admitting smoking marijuana in the past 30 days.
While this is a problem that Tiverton needs to address as a community, Rhode Island’s antiquated marijuana prohibition laws are clearly not serving as an effective deterrent. Furthermore, saddling young pot smokers with a criminal record that prevents them from obtaining student loans or the ability to get a job in certain fields serves no one’s interests. The penalties for youthful offenders included in the law actually help to educate youth about the dangers of drug use.
Edwards’ legislation, which received strong support from both the House and Senate, is intended to prevent “youthful indiscretions” from leading to a drug conviction that can come back to haunt people throughout life. As State Rep. Daniel Gordon, R-Portsmouth, Tiverton, Little Compton, pointed out, it also helps to reduce overcrowding at the state prison, and reins in government overreach into citizen’s lives.
Particularly in border communities such as Tiverton, Rhode Island’s decriminalization will bring greater parity between the neighboring state’s laws, and will prevent the detriment that overly harsh marijuana prohibition laws can have on individuals and families. “Our citizens are being penalized, when you can go across the border and won’t face those same charges,” Edwards said.
The Rhode Island marijuana decriminalization legislation is a balanced, effective and thoughtful approach to marijuana policy. The final bill deserves Gov. Chafee’s signature.