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RI lawmakers vote to decriminalize marijuana

By David Klepper
Associated Press / June 5, 2012
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PROVIDENCE, R.I.—Rhode Island lawmakers voted Tuesday to decriminalize the possession of an ounce or less of marijuana, replacing criminal fines and jail time with something more like a traffic ticket.

Under the legislation, adults caught with one ounce or less of marijuana would face a $150 civil fine. Police would confiscate the marijuana, but the incident would not appear on a person's criminal record.

Minors caught with pot would also have to complete a drug awareness program and community service.

Current law makes possession of small amounts of marijuana a misdemeanor. Violators face possible jail time and fines up to $500.

The House passed the bill 50-24 Tuesday evening. Minutes later, the Senate endorsed the legislation 28-6. The House and Senate must sign off on the other chamber's bill before the measure heads to Gov. Lincoln Chafee.

Chafee, an independent, has declined to say whether he would sign the legislation. He said he will review the bill once it reaches his office.

Supporters said passage of the bill would reflect growing public opposition to criminal penalties for recreational marijuana use. They argue that prosecuting marijuana users wastes time and money that could be diverted to more serious crimes, and that too many people are turned down for jobs or college financial aid because of a pot conviction.

"Society is changing. Times are changing," said Rep. Anastasia Williams, D-Providence. "It's not fair for a joint to ruin someone's life ... individuals should not be condemned for the rest of their lives."

But opponents argued that decriminalization could lead to more impaired drivers and greater substance abuse by teens. Several opponents also warned of a "slipperly slope" to legalization.

"Look at the precedent this is going to set for 15, 16, 17-year-old kids," said Rep. Joseph Trillo, R-Warwick. "No longer are they going to look at this as something they shouldn't do."

Fourteen states -- including neighboring Massachusetts and Connecticut -- have decriminalized the possession of limited amounts of marijuana, according to Robert Capecchi, a legislative analyst with the Washington D.C.-based Marijuana Policy Project. The rules vary from state to state, but Capecchi said they've all eliminated the threat of jail time for adults caught with pot for the first time.

"Marijuana possession shouldn't be a crime," Capecchi said. "People are finally starting to see through the reefer madness that has been spreading since the 1930s."

Under the Rhode Island legislation, a user caught with an ounce or less of marijuana three times within 18 months would face misdemeanor charges that bring the possibility of up to 30 days in jail and/or a $200 to $500 fine.

It would remain a crime to operate a motor vehicle under the influence of marijuana.

The legislation would not take effect until April 1, 2013.

Rhode Island already allows individuals with certain chronic health conditions to use small amounts of medicinal marijuana. Chafee has written to federal authorities seeking the reclassification of marijuana to acknowledge that it has medical value.

Warwick resident Catharine Leach said regular marijuana users like her shouldn't face the threat of arrest or the stigma of a drug conviction for using a substance that's less harmful than many legal drugs. The mother of two boys has testified in favor of decriminalizing marijuana in legislative hearings.

"We have to get rid of these bad laws," she told The Associated Press. "Decriminalization is such a harmless thing to do. We're not going to be opening the floodgates to stoners. "

But Kristen Westmoreland, a physician and program manager of a substance abuse prevention coalition in Barrington, said decriminalizing marijuana will send the wrong message to teens. Her group recently received a state grant to bolster efforts to reduce marijuana use.

"For youth, using marijuana the harm is even higher because their brains are still developing," she said. "And an ounce is an awful lot of marijuana. You can roll 30 joints with one ounce. This would be a big change."

During nearly two hours of discussion on the bill, House lawmakers debated the relative harms of marijuana and alcohol, and tried to estimate the number of joints that could be produced from an ounce of marijuana. One supporter of decriminalization initially guessed only three or four, while critics of the legislation insisted 20 to 30.

"Maybe some people roll them thinner," said Rep. Laurence Ehrhardt, R-North Kingstown.

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