Legislation decriminalizing marijuana in Rhode Island went into effect last week. First introduced in 2010 by Rep. John Edwards, D-Tiverton and Portsmouth, the bill passed in the General Assembly last year.
Individuals possessing less than one ounce of marijuana will be fined $150 instead of facing criminal charges. If the same individual is caught three times in an 18-month period, he or she will be subject to the original charges — a $500 fine and up to one year in prison.
The first version of the bill was just two paragraphs — “probably not a great piece of legislation at the time,” Edwards said. The final version was much more expansive and included additional information from a study commission organized by Sen. Joshua Miller, D-Cranston, the Senate bill’s primary sponsor, he said.
Opposition to the legislation steadily declined from the time it was first introduced in the General Assembly. The bill ultimately passed by a margin of 50-24 in the House of Representatives and 28-6 in the Senate last June.
Though legislators told Edwards last year that passing a decriminalization bill during an election year was unfeasible, he worked diligently with outside help to pass the bill, he said, calling Brown students “instrumental” in that effort.
The Marijuana Policy Project — a lobbying organization that aims to change drug policies across the country — spearheaded the effort in support of the bill this year, said Mason Tvert, director of communications at MPP.
“This is a great step forward toward a more sensible marijuana policy in Rhode Island,” Tvert said. “It’s great that adults in Rhode Island will no longer face criminal penalties simply for possessing a less harmful product than alcohol.”
“That’s really going to change people’s lives,” said Natalie Van Houten ’14, president of Students for Sensible Drug Policy. Marijuana possession is a “crime without a victim,” she added.
Van Houten said decriminalization will save the state money because it will not have to devote police and legal resources to making arrests and prosecuting cases.
But decriminalization legislation may convey to teens that marijuana use is acceptable, said Rep. James McLaughlin, D-Cumberland and Central Falls, the Associated Press reported last week.
“I think it sends the right message to our teens. It tells them that we’re not going to ruin their lives permanently,” Edwards said in response to McLaughlin’s comments. “They can make a mistake,” he added. “We as a state have compassion for that, and we don’t need to be incarcerating any more people for marijuana possession.”
McLaughlin could not be reached for comment.
Edwards said he was inspired to introduce legislation decriminalizing marijuana by an incident that occurred before he was elected as a representative. When he worked at a construction company, Edwards saw co-workers who had been arrested for marijuana possession in their youth restricted from certain opportunities because of their criminal records.
The important question is whether decriminalization leads to “explosive use,” said David Lewis, professor emeritus of community health and founder of the Center for Alcohol and Addiction Studies. Data from states that have already decriminalized marijuana indicate that decriminalization does not lead to higher usage rates, he said.
According to a report by the MPP — which used data from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration — no correlation exists between decriminalization laws and higher rates of marijuana usage. MPP reached this conclusion by comparing usage data from states with decriminalization laws in effect to statistics from neighboring states that maintain criminal charges for marijuana possession.
Lewis said the law brings medical benefits because it promotes discussion about the health effects of marijuana use.
“The very fact that we passed the law will focus attention on all the health risks of marijuana because it creates a public debate,” he said.
There are currently 15 states with decriminalization laws, 18 states where medical marijuana use is permitted and two states — Colorado and Washington — where marijuana is legal. Washington, D.C. also allows medical marijuana use.
With Rhode Island joining Connecticut, Massachusetts and Maine in decriminalizing marijuana possession, Edwards said he hopes Vermont and New Hampshire follow suit for “regional equity.”
Tvert said he has high hopes for the pending decriminalization bill in Vermont, on which hearings began last week. A vote on the bill could be held as soon as this week.
MPP predicts another three states to adopt bills that permit medical marijuana use soon, Tvert said. New Hampshire is likely to pass such a bill this year, while Minnesota and Illinois are expected to do so during the current legislative session, which lasts two years in both states, he said.
Tvert cited Maine as a particularly exciting prospect for more aggressive reform in marijuana policy. A bill that would tax and regulate marijuana like alcohol was introduced in the Maine Legislature in March with bipartisan sponsorship from 35 legislators, he said.
A similar bill — which Edwards is co-sponsoring — was proposed in Rhode Island by Rep. Edith Ajello, D-Providence, in February.
Tvert said it is difficult to tell whether the legislation will pass this year, but he said he is encouraged by the support of Rep. Brian Newberry, R-North Smithfield, the House Minority Leader.
“There’s still work to be done” in Rhode Island, Tvert said. “The time has come to regulate marijuana.”