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State re-evaluates marijuana policy

In the latest development in the debate over marijuana policy in Rhode Island, a legislative panel is evaluating changes to the state's laws regarding the drug. 

The nine-member commission, which was created by a state Senate resolution in July, had its first meeting yesterday at the State House. The initial gathering focused on establishing an organizational framework for future meetings and also touched on endorsing possible changes to state policy after its fourth gathering at the end of January.

The panel, chaired by state Sen. Joshua Miller, D-Dist. 28, also included Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron, Brown Professor Emeritus of Medicine and Community Health David Lewis and representatives from the Rhode Island Family Life Center, the Rhode Island State Nurses Association and the Rhode Island Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. Professor of Economics Glenn Loury is also a member of the panel, though he did not attend Wednesday's meeting.

One of the primary motivations behind the panel's creation was the need to assess the decriminalization of marijuana in Massachusetts and whether this policy could be adapted to Rhode Island, Miller told The Herald.  In November 2008, Massachusetts voters approved a referendum to decriminalize marijuana and to impose a $100 fine on adults who are caught with an ounce or less of the substance. 

The resolution to create the panel proposed that it address the ramifications of legalizing marijuana, specifically the effects of levying a $35 "sin tax" on its sale. The commission was also charged with assessing the effects of current laws on the drug's availability and use among the general population, as well as its ties to crime. 

This resolution was the second recent bill dealing with marijuana to be considered in the General Assembly.  The first, proposed in February by state Sen. Leo Blais, R-Dist. 21, sought to decriminalize the possession of an ounce or less of marijuana in a manner similar to the Massachusetts law but was scuttled before it left committee. 

Miller made it clear that the panel would be constrained by the political realities of legislating marijuana policy evinced by Blais' efforts.

"At a minimum, what I want for this panel is for us to be taken seriously," he said.  "I don't think any legislation will be taken seriously in this coming session unless it represents a relief of resources."

Rhode Island's current budget deficit of about $200 million makes the fiscal, rather than the social, dimension of any analysis of marijuana policy especially salient, Miller said.  

The panel discussed a state police report documenting 391 arrests for marijuana possession since Jan. 1, 2008. Miller said the report indicated that state resources allocated to enforce marijuana policy could be diverted to other areas that the state deemed more important.

Other commission members expressed concern regarding the cumulative expenses linked to marijuana arrests, particularly those associated with detaining suspects overnight and imposing bail.

Though yesterday's meeting was largely procedural, it did offer an opportunity for panel members to share their views on marijuana policy. Miron said a financial outlook "clearly points toward legalization" as the most advantageous option, yet he said later that even this would not make a huge impact in alleviating the state's dire financial situation.  Money, he said, should not be the primary reason for loosening restrictions on marijuana consumption — instead, the focus should be on limiting government interference and improving people's welfare.

Lewis also highlighted the importance of reassessing Rhode Island's marijuana policy.

"People nationally and in the state underestimate the costs and issues with possession arrests," he said. "Rhode Island is small enough and smart enough to think about marijuana possession as to how much criminalization should take place."


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