No one will be surprised to hear that a group of Brown students supports reduced penalties for marijuana possession. And with Snoop Dogg scheduled to perform on campus in just a few weeks, some might question our timing in writing this piece. However, we in fact have another pertinent reason. A Rhode Island State Senate commission voted last week to endorse the decriminalization of an ounce or less of marijuana. After reviewing the arguments for and against, we support the commission's conclusion.
The commission was founded to study marijuana policy last July in the wake of the marijuana decriminalization referendum that passed in neighboring Massachusetts in 2008. The panel included state legislators, law enforcement officers, economists, a doctor, a nurse and an attorney.
Its work became even more urgent in February, when State Rep. John Edwards, D-Portsmouth and Tiverton, introduced a decriminalization bill in the General Assembly. The bill would end jail sentences for individuals caught in possession of small amounts of marijuana, and reduce the maximum fine from $500 to $150. Since 2007, 399 Rhode Islanders convicted of first-offense possession have seen prison time — on average, three and a half months.
There are two major reasons for decriminalization. First, it's fiscally responsible. The commission estimated between $232,000 and $2 million per year in savings just on prison costs. Some members — including a lecturer in economics at Harvard — projected total annual savings of over $10 million. Given these numbers, decriminalization is a small but worthwhile step towards closing the state's budget gap, which is expected to reach $427 million in 2011.
Second, decriminalization would allow police departments to focus their efforts on more dangerous criminal activity. Last year, 2,546 Rhode Islanders were arrested for first-offense possession. We find it hard to believe that more than a handful of these people truly posed a danger to themselves or others.
Smoking marijuana certainly isn't the healthiest of activities. However, opponents of decriminalization vastly overstate the substance's negative effects. We agree with Brown's own David Lewis, who founded the University's Center for Alcohol and Addiction Studies and served on the commission. According to Lewis, "The dangers are small compared to legal drugs like alcohol and tobacco."
Critics also claim that marijuana is a gateway drug, and that decriminalization sends a message to youth that marijuana use is acceptable. The gateway drug theory mistakes correlation for causation — just because many heavy drug users first started with marijuana does not imply that their early experimentation is the driving force behind later involvement with other drugs. Hard drug use may more directly reflect the age at which an individual is first exposed to drugs, as well as the individual's propensity to use any drugs at all.
More importantly, the commission recommended that decriminalization legislation apply only to those above the age of 18. An age minimum sensibly ensures that society's message to kids about marijuana isn't different from the message it sends about alcohol and tobacco. And decriminalizing possession would not change anything for those found driving while under the influence.
A spokesperson for Gov. Donald Carcieri '65 has said that the Governor opposes decriminalization. We hope he'll reconsider — don't do it for Snoop, do it for the state's coffers.
Editorials are written by The Herald's editorial page board. Send comments to email@example.com.