Rhode Island Panel Expected To Recommend Decriminalizing Pot


Graphic: Reality Catcher

​A Rhode Island Senate panel is expected to recommend decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana when it wraps up its 3 1/2-month investigation later this week.

The commission, chaired by state Sen. Joshua Miller (D-Cranston), has been studying the costs of current marijuana policy since November. Rhode Island, facing a budget crisis, tasked the panel to build a dossier on how much it costs to arrest, prosecute, and sometimes jail people for pot, reports Katherine Gregg at The Providence Journal.

Estimates of the cost to keep people in jail for marijuana possession alone range from $233,000 up to $2 million annually. One commission member who works with released prisoners suggested the overall cost to the state’s law enforcement may actually be 10 times higher than that.

Council of State Governments
Sen. Joshua Miller: “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”

​”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,” Miller said.
According to Miller, the testimony presented so far “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.”
Miller acknowledged on Sunday that the head of the state police, Col. Brendan Doherty, is (predictably) against legalization.
Col. Doherty sent the panel a letter echoing the concern raised by a state prosecutor that decriminalizing marijuana will “make it more accessible” (news flash, Colonel — it’s already everywhere) and “send the wrong message” to young people.
Presumably, it’s just fine to send young people the message, “It’s OK to put people in cages for using a non-toxic herb.”
The panel, made up of doctors, lawyers, academicians, prison-release advocates and Senator Miller (who sponsored a past effort to decriminalize pot) also heard testimony from a former undercover state police officer in New Jersey who now heads 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 of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) told the panel in February.
“Let police get back to protecting all of us from violent criminals and child molesters,” Cole said. “We will all be much better off.”
Possession of any amount of marijuana in Rhode Island carries a criminal penalty of up to a year in jail and a $500 fine.
When asked what he hoped and expected his panel to recommend when it finishes up on Thursday, Miller, a 55-year-old restaurant owner, said he anticipated legislation to decriminalize possession of marijuana by those 18 or older.
Miller cited the approach adopted by Massachusetts, where possession of less than an ounce of marijuana is subject only to a $100 civil fine since a voter initiative passed in November 2008. The money is sent back to the cities and towns where the fines are levied.
A bill has already been introduced in the Rhode Island House of Representatives by Rep. John Edwards (D-Tiverton) with more than 30 cosponsors. The bill would set the penalty for less than an ounce of pot at a $150 fine. A similar bill is pending in the state Senate; Miller said the amount of the fine is open for debate.
Passage of the decrim bill would place Rhode Island alongside 12 other states that have decriminalized possession of marijuana: California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, New York, North Carolina, Ohio and Oregon.