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Senate panel endorses pot decriminalization

A commission studying marijuana policy in Rhode Island recommended last week that the state legislature decriminalize possession of marijuana in small amounts.

The Special Senate Commission to Study the Prohibition of Marijuana, which was composed of experts in relevant fields — including Professor of Economics Glenn Loury — released its final report, which outlined various benefits of decriminalization for the state of Rhode Island, earlier this month. The commission found that decriminalization of under an ounce of marijuana would create "significant" savings for the state from lower administrative costs and fewer arrests for minor cases of possession.

The report states savings would accrue to agencies such as the Rhode Island Department of Corrections and the Public Defender's Office. A report published by OpenDoors, a Rhode Island organization that works on behalf of released convicts, estimates the change will create $12.7 million in savings for the state.

But others have projected more modest savings. Rep. John G. Edwards, D-Tiverton and Portsmouth, told The Herald last month that he believed decriminalization would save the state between $250,000 and $2 million annually.

"It would make what is already close to true de facto," said commission member Jeffrey Miron, a senior lecturer in economics at Harvard and the director of undergraduate studies. "People found with small amounts of marijuana are rarely incarcerated under the current system."

Miron, a supporter of not only decriminalization but full legalization of marijuana, said, "Painting this as a panacea for state budgets is a fairy tale." But, he added, "the burden of proof should be on the government when the government wants to infringe on what people can do."

Col. Joseph Moran, Central Falls chief of police and president of the Rhode Island Police Chiefs' Association, also said the current system does not result in as many marijuana-related incarcerations as some may think. Moran said he opposes decriminalizing marijuana.

"Many of the people in jail for marijuana are there for violating provisions of probations," Moran said. "We can all manipulate statistics to say what we want them to say."

Moran, one of two opponents of decriminalization on the commission, claimed that decriminalization would not only fail to cure state budgets but also called marijuana a "dangerous drug."

"It can open up the horizon for use of more dangerous drugs," he said.

Mischa Steiner '10, treasurer of the national board of directors of Students for Sensible Drug Policy and former president of the Brown chapter, praised the commission's decision.

"It doesn't make sense economically, socially or politically for marijuana to be criminalized," Steiner said. "Officers are spending their time arresting people for marijuana possession when they could be dealing with far more serious crimes."

David Lewis, professor emeritus of community health and medicine at Brown, said both sides exaggerate their cases, but he still believes marijuana should be decriminalized.

"Proponents of legalization or decriminalization oftentimes overlook some of the health risks of marijuana, while opponents oftentimes exaggerate the risks," Lewis said.

But he added that marijuana should still be treated as a potentially dangerous substance, though it is less harmful than tobacco and alcohol.

"Any substance that has risks needs to be regulated in one way or another," Lewis said. "If we decriminalize or ever legalize marijuana, it will need to be stringently regulated."
Steiner said he believes decriminalization and even legalization are bound to occur. He said the inertia of state governments will be the factor holding back policy changes. 

"Not only will decriminalization become a reality, but full legalization with taxation is inevitable," Steiner said. "It is just a matter of how quickly the state government can move."

"My guess is that within a year or two, marijuana will be decriminalized in Rhode Island," Lewis said.

Despite the growing sense of inevitability, Moran believes that not much will change if and when marijuana is decriminalized in small amounts.

"We're still going to have to seize the drugs and file reports," Moran said. "It's still going to take lots of time and energy, and I don't see a windfall of money coming into the state as a result of this policy."

But Steiner said he believes significant change is within sight.

"Support for marijuana legalization in our generation is extremely high and it continues to grow across the entire population," Steiner said. "I think that once a state fully legalizes marijuana, it will be a major turning point."



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