State Rep. John G. Edwards, D-Dist. 70, introduced a bill last week in the General Assembly that would decriminalize possession of up to one ounce of marijuana.
Under current law, possession of such small amounts is a criminal offense that carries a $500 fine and up to one year in prison. The second offense counts as a felony.
Decriminalization would mean that offenders could no longer be convicted and sent to prison. Under the proposed legislation, the only punishment for small-scale possession would be a fine, much like a traffic ticket. Additionally, the bill would reduce the fine from $500 to $150.
The legislation "will keep people from having their lives ruined for something that is pretty simple and insignificant. If you get caught with a small amount of marijuana, your life shouldn't be ruined," Edwards said.
Edwards said 35 representatives, including two Republicans, have already signed on as cosponsors.
Rhode Island would be the thirteenth state to decriminalize marijuana possession to some extent, after California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, New York, North Carolina, Ohio and Oregon. In Nov. 2008, Massachusetts passed by ballot measure a law similar to that proposed by Edwards.
The bill's introduction came just before the fifth meeting of a Special Senate Commission that is investigating possible marijuana law reform in Rhode Island.
Sen. Joshua Miller, D-Dist. 28, chairs the nine-member panel of experts in economics, law and medicine, which includes David Lewis, professor emeritus of medicine and community health, and Glenn Loury, professor of economics.
"There's a significant amount of support" for the bill, Miller said. "More than most people expected."
In its meeting last Wednesday, the panel heard from Jack Cole, a former narcotics officer who said that police resources ought to be directed away from drug cases and toward more serious crimes, according to a Providence Journal article from last week.
"Let police get back to protecting all of us from violent criminals and child molesters. We will all be much better off," Cole told the panel, according to the article.
Miller echoed Cole's sentiment; he said less strict marijuana laws would provide "the potential for local law enforcement to save worthwhile money."
He was referring in part to the cost to the state of incarcerating marijuana offenders. It costs an average of $44,000 per year to house inmates at Rhode Island's Adult Correctional Institute.
Edwards predicted his bill could save the state anywhere between $250,000 and $2 million annually.
But this savings might turn out to be quite insignificant, said commission member Jeffrey Miron, who is a senior lecturer in economics at Harvard.
The bill "would save the state some money, but not a lot," he said.
Still, there are compelling arguments for relaxing marijuana laws beyond pure economic benefits for the state, Miron said.
"Everything should be legal unless there's some compelling reason for it not to be legal," he said. "The burden of proof to make it illegal should be on those who want to make it illegal."
Meanwhile, Miron said that although in his view the bill would be "a step in the right direction," it was noteworthy that it did not address the laws punishing the production and distribution of marijuana.
The commission will continue to meet throughout this spring and has pushed back its deadline for issuing recommendations from January to March 31.
Asked about the role of the commission, Edwards stressed the need for quick action.
"They're going to talk about it until it's dead. My opinion is, get the bill in," he said.
Edwards' bill is currently under evaluation by a committee chaired by Rep. Don Lally, D-Dist. 33, one of its cosponsors.