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State House weighs two bills ending ban on pot

Two bills that would end the criminal prohibition of marijuana use came before the Rhode Island House Judiciary Committee last Wednesday. The first bill — proposed by Rep. Edith Ajello, D-Providence, whose district includes College Hill — would legalize the drug under certain conditions. The second bill — introduced by Rep. John G. Edwards, D-Tiverton and Portsmouth — would decriminalize marijuana consumption and levy a $150 fine for possession.

The two bills come on the heels of a March recommendation by a state Senate study commission that the state decriminalize small amounts of the drug.

While Ajello took into account the commission's findings, she said that her support for legalization arose largely from a realization that the state's marijuana policy is ineffective.
"Marijuana laws are not working," Ajello said. She cited the fiscal toll of imprisoning marijuana offenders as well as the fact that "more people of color are arrested and imprisoned for small amounts of marijuana." 

Letters urging legalization from Professor of Economics Glenn Loury and Professor Emeritus of Medicine and Community Health David Lewis — who both also served on the Senate marijuana commission — further contributed to her decision to propose the bill, Ajello added.

Ajello's bill would legalize the use of up to one ounce of marijuana, provided that users refrain from driving under the influence, among other restrictions. Cultivators and distributors would be required to register with the state government. The bill would also establish a "verification system" so that law enforcement can ensure that marijuana retailers are approved by the state.

While this would require new infrastructure to regulate the market for marijuana, Ajello asserted that the bill would be a financial boon for the state.

"The taxing and the licensing would pay for that infrastructure and the savings from law enforcement effort and imprisonment would actually increase state revenue," Ajello said.
According to Ajello, decriminalization of the drug would not go far enough because state resources would still be directed at punishing cultivators and distributors.

The resulting conflict with federal laws designating marijuana as an illegal drug "is of some concern,"  she said. But the federal government under President Barack Obama seems disinclined to intervene in state marijuana policy, particularly in light of California's progressive laws regarding the drug, Ajello said.

Mischa Steiner '10, treasurer of the national board of directors of Students for Sensible Drug Policy and former president of the Brown chapter, said the group was "pleasantly surprised" by Ajello's decision to introduce the legalization bill.

"We, in fact, did not expect a full tax and regulate bill to even happen at all," Steiner said. 
Most of the group's efforts, which include door-to-door campaigning for progressive marijuana legislation, have been focused on decriminalization, according to Steiner.
"What decriminalization would do is make sure that the black Hope High School student is treated the same way by the law as the student at Brown" for marijuana possession, Steiner said.  

Lt. Jack Cole, the executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, testified in favor of both bills. But he said he believes legalization to be the better policy.
"The act of making these drugs illegal creates a danger for the distribution of them," Cole said. "That very danger is the reason why there's an artificially inflated value for these drugs."

Cole cited reductions in drug-related disease and in the use of every narcotic except marijuana following the decriminalization of recreational drug use in Portugal.

Kristen Westmoreland MPH '09, a member of the Barrington Substance Abuse Task Force, testified before the Senate marijuana commission and is opposed to both bills. 

"For us, the laws are very important in terms of prevention of marijuana use, especially in youth," Westmoreland said. "Anything that weakens the laws would be seen as an entryway for youth to use more."

According to Westmoreland, though some have hailed changes to marijuana laws as means to lower enforcement costs and incarceration rates, these benefits fail to take into account the costs of increased consumption, including health risks and traffic fatalities. Marijuana use would increase due to a decreased "perception of harm" if it is legalized or decriminalized, Westmoreland said.

Edwards, who introduced the decriminalization bill, opposes legalization because the ensuing conflict with federal law could cause the federal government to  "suspend payments for various programs in retribution" for a policy of legalization.

Edwards said his concern for the effects of harsh marijuana laws on young people influenced his decision to propose decriminalization.

"I think that civil possession is a pretty normal occurrence for kids and young adults, and I don't want to see their lives ruined just because they get caught with a small amount of marijuana," he said.

Edwards also emphasized the financial toll of incarcerating people for civil possession, an expenditure of "up to $44,000 a year" per offender.

Edwards said a similar Massachusetts decriminalization law, which mandates a $100 fine for possession, inspired the bill that he proposed. Edwards' bill raises the fine to $150 because Rhode Island "is in a much deeper financial mess than Massachusetts," he said.
Edwards said the consequences of the new law in Massachusetts encouraged him to introduce the similar legislation.

"People are not running out and smoking marijuana if they never did" before, Edwards said. "That has not occurred in Massachusetts or the 13 other states that have already approved" decriminalization.

While the House Judiciary Committee will subject both bills to further review, it is likely they will have different political fates.

"I probably don't think there will be more discussion or a vote this year," Ajello said of her legalization bill.

Edwards was more optimistic about decriminalization, particularly given that he has received commitments from about 40 legislators who would support the bill if it came to the floor for a vote, he said. 

"I've already been told that if I put the bill back in next year, it would be my bill that would go through," Edwards said.




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