Senate Commission Recommends Decriminalization of Marijuana

March 17, 2010 - 12:16pm

By Katherine Gregg

Journal State House Bureau

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — A state Senate commission has recommended the decriminalization of an ounce or less of marijuana.

Made up of passionate advocates on both sides of the marijuana debate, the panel, chaired by state Sen. Joshua Miller, D-Cranston, voted Tuesday to approve the contents of a 24-page final report that concludes that “marijuana law reform” would save Rhode Island a substantial amount of money by avoiding “costly arrests [and] incarcerations due to simple possession of marijuana.”

The report suggests that Rhode Island take its lead from Massachusetts, where anyone 18 or older who is caught with an ounce or less of marijuana is required to pay a $100 civil fine “that goes directly to the municipality in which the penalty was issued.”

Though the law-enforcement representatives on the panel disagreed, the report hails these proposed moves as an “immediate step toward realizing savings in the state budget and freeing law enforcement to investigate and solve more serious crimes.”

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 commission heard repeatedly that few people go to jail for marijuana possession alone.

Thirteen other states have decriminalized possession of marijuana to one extent or another: Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, New York, North Carolina, Ohio and Oregon.

The report leaves up in the air the size of the proposed new civil fine and the scope of the significant savings.

Estimates of how much the state could save on prison costs alone ranged from $232,000 to $2 million. Miller said it didn’t seem wise to “continue the debate over whose statistics were more accurate.”

However, a separate report issued a day earlier by commission member Nick Horton, in his capacity as a policy researcher for OpenDoors, an organization that works with released prisoners, suggests $12.7 million in potential taxpayer savings from not arresting, prosecuting and jailing marijuana users.

Attorney General Patrick C. Lynch opposed decriminalization. So did the only past and present police officers on the panel: Central Falls Police Chief Joseph Moran and retired State Police Lt. Joseph Osediacz.

Calling marijuana “a dangerous drug,” Moran, who heads the Rhode Island Police Chiefs Association, said decriminalization would send the wrong message, make it more difficult for the police to bring driving-under-the-influence cases against impaired drivers, and take away a “judge’s opportunity to send offenders into treatment and counseling.” He also questioned the purported cost-savings, in light of the $93.50 in court fees — plus untallied fines — the state would be losing.

The report notes that there were 2,546 arrests by state, local, airport and University of Rhode Island police for first-offense possession of marijuana last year.

Despite testimony to the contrary from prosecutors, it also suggests that 399 people have gone to jail since 2007 for 3 1/2 months each, on average, for first-offense possession. It said the majority of jailed marijuana offenders were white.

The report — along with its recommendations for legislation — now goes to the full Senate for consideration, along with a litany of unresolved legislative issues, such as stiffer fines for repeat offenders; the doubling of unpaid fines every 30 days; and language to make clear that no one can be sent to prison as a probation violator for possession of an ounce or less.

The brief debate pitted state Sen. Leo Blais, a pharmacist, against Osediacz, a retired narcotics officer with the state police.

Blais asked: “What are we doing from a policy perspective in spending hard-earned state dollars that are in such short supply in these economic times for incarceration of people that could be better spent providing safety nets for seniors, and at-risk youth, and prevention programs …?”

But Osediacz said the commission never even gathered evidence on the experience of the 13 states that have already decriminalized marijuana, and its final report downplays the “dangerous” nature of the drug, the opposition of “local, state and federal law enforcement,” and the potentially harmful effects spelled out by one of the commission’s members, Dr. David C. Lewis, the founder of the Brown University Center for Alcohol and Addiction Studies.

“The issue for me was not the dangers,” said Lewis, after casting his vote for decriminalization, because “the dangers are small compared to legal drugs like alcohol and tobacco,” and “I have never been convinced … that you are making the public safer by using the criminal statutes on marijuana.”


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