Rhode Island Senate Panel Recommends Decriminalizing Pot

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Graphic: Reality Catcher

‚ÄčA Rhode Island state Senate commission has recommended that an ounce or less of marijuana be decriminalized in the state.

The panel, chaired by state Sen. Joshua Miller (D-Cranston), voted Tuesday to approve a 24-page final report concluding that marijuana law reform would save Rhode Island money by avoiding “costly arrests [and]incarcerations due to simple possession of marijuana,” reports Katherine Gregg of The Providence Journal.
The report says that Rhode Island could take its lead from Massachusetts, where adults 18 or older caught with an ounce or less of pot are required only to pay a $100 civil fine “that goes directly to the municipality in which the penalty was issued.”

The report lauds these proposed changes as an “immediate step toward realizing savings in the state budget and freeing law enforcement to investigate and solve more serious crimes.”
The law enforcement representatives on the panel disagreed, of course, as they quite enjoy having the latitude to bust potheads.
Under current Rhode Island law, possession of any amount of marijuana is a misdemeanor punishable by a fine between $200 and $500 and up to a year in jail. The commission heard repeatedly that few people go to jail for marijuana possession alone.
Despite testimony to the contrary from prosecutors, the report also points out that 399 pe9ple have gone to jail in Rhode Island since 2007 for an average 3.5 months each, for first-offense marijuana possession. It said the most jailed marijuana offenders were white.
The report doesn’t quantify the size of the proposed new civil fine, or the scope of the potential savings.
Estimates of how much the state could save on prison costs ranged from $232,000 to $2 million.
A separate report issued a by commission member Nick Horton, in his capacity as policy researcher for Open Doors, an organization that works with released prisonsers, suggested $12.7 million in potential taxpayer savings from not arresting, prosecuting and jailing marijuana users.
The report says there were 2,546 arrests by state, local, airport and University of Rhode Island police for first-offense possession of marijuana in 2009.
The report, along with its recommendations to the Legislature, now goes to the full Senate for consideration. Unresolved issues include possible 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 of marijuana.
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), Rhode Island has the highest rate of marijuana use in the United States, at 16.2 percent. Lowest was Utah, with 7.2 percent.
Thirteen other states — Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, New York, North Carolina, Ohio and Oregon — have decriminalized possession of marijuana to one extent or another.
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