Projo: Senate panel may urge decriminalizing marijuana possession

March 4, 2010 - 11:29am

01:00 AM EST on Monday, March 1, 2010

Journal State House Bureau

PROVIDENCE — When it wraps up its 3 1/2-month inquiry later this week, a Senate panel is expected to recommend decriminalizing possession of relatively small amounts of marijuana.

The commission, chaired by state Sen. Joshua Miller, D-Cranston, has been methodically building a dossier since November on how much it costs the cash-strapped state to arrest, prosecute and, in some cases, jail people nabbed with marijuana multiple times or while they are on probation for some unrelated crime.

Estimates of the cost to keep people in jail for marijuana possession alone range from $233,000 to upward of $2 million annually, depending on who is doing the counting. One commission member who works with released prisoners has suggested the overall cost to the state’s law enforcement system may, in actuality, be 10 times that.

Whatever the actual cost, Miller said: “I think the case has clearly been made that [money] used to arrest and incarcerate somebody for small amounts of marijuana is not the best use of our resources.”

Beyond that, he said, the testimony presented so far certainly “opens up for discussion” whether imprisonment and the stigma attached to having a criminal record are the best ways “to put somebody on a different path if they are involved in drugs and want to change.”

Not everyone favors decriminalization.

On Sunday, Miller acknowledged that the head of the state police, Col. Brendan Doherty, recently sent his panel a letter echoing the concern raised by a top state prosecutor that decriminalizing the drug will make it more accessible and “send the wrong message” to young people.

But the panel — made up of doctors, lawyers, academicians, prison-release advocates and the senator, who sponsored a past effort to decriminalize the drug — also heard testimony from a former undercover state police officer in New Jersey, now heading a national decriminalization drive.

“A tremendous amount of the staff time and funding for law enforcement is wasted arresting nonviolent drug users who hurt no one,” retired Detective Jack Cole told the panel in February. “Let police get back to protecting all of us from violent criminals and child molesters. We will all be much better off.”

Possession of any amount of marijuana carries a criminal penalty of up to one year in jail, and a $500 fine.

When asked what he hoped and expected his panel to recommend when it wraps up on Thursday, Miller, a 55-year-old restaurant owner, anticipated legislation to decriminalize possession of the drug by someone 18 or older. He cited the approach adopted by Massachusetts, where possession of less than an ounce of marijuana is subject to a $100 civil fine that is funneled back to the cities and towns where the fine was levied.

A pending bill, introduced in the Rhode Island House of Representatives by Rep. John Edwards, D-Tiverton, with more than 30 cosponsors, calls for a $150 fine instead. A similar bill is pending in the Senate. Miller said the size of the potential fine is open for debate.

Passage would place Rhode Island alongside the 12 states that have already decriminalized possession of marijuana to one degree or another: California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, New York, North Carolina, Ohio and Oregon.

An alternative would be legalization, as has been recommended by one of the last witnesses booked to testify by the commission: Jeffrey A. Miron, a senior lecturer at Harvard University. In his writing and public appearances, Miron has argued that “prohibition creates violence because it drives the drug market underground. … Prohibition of drugs corrupts politicians and law enforcement by putting police, prosecutors, judges and politicians in the position to threaten the profits of an illicit trade. This is why bribery, threats and kidnapping are common for prohibited industries but rare otherwise.”

But Miller does not expect his commission to take this leap, without first approving and analyzing the effects of decriminalizing marijuana.

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