Rhode Island’s Drive for Sensible Marijuana Laws

Sen. Josh Miller (D-Cranston)

So much talk about changing this nation’s marijuana laws focuses on Western states that many people don’t realize there are state governments all across the country that have been working hard to bring their marijuana laws in line with reality and modern science.

One of those states leading the charge, I am very proud to say, is my home state ofRhode Island, where we have not only instituted a well-working medical marijuana law, but this year began to have a serious conversation about the effects of current marijuana prohibition and potential decriminalization.

Providing Safe Access To Medical Marijuana

In 2006, Rhode Island became the 11th state in the nation to enact a medical marijuana law allowing seriously ill patients to use medical marijuana with their doctor’s recommendation. Despite being vetoed by Gov. Donald Carcieri, both the House and Senate voted by overwhelming, bipartisan majorities to pass the law and override the governor’s veto.

Our medical marijuana program allows those stricken with cancer, AIDS, glaucoma, multiple sclerosis, chronic pain and other conditions to legally use marijuana—in keeping with the ever-growing body of scientific studies showing the drug’s efficacy in helping those and other conditions.

As originally passed, patients were allowed only to grow their medicine—a burden, it soon became evident, that was too much for many ill patients, forcing some to continue buying marijuana from drug dealers and subjecting themselves to further harm by looking for their medicine on the streets.

There were multiple documented accounts of patients being assaulted or robbed in their attempt to purchase marijuana. To correct that situation, in 2009—again through overriding the governor’s veto—the House and Senate passed an amended medical marijuana act that allowed the creation of compassion centers that could grow and sell marijuana to patients, easing the burden on them and finally giving them safe and reliable access to their medicine. The department of health recently finalized the rules and regulations necessary to implement the compassion centers. The application process has begun and we expect to see the first medical marijuana compassion center in Rhode Island to be licensed by July.

Removing Criminal Penalties For Possession

Just last month, I completed work as chairman of the Special Senate Commission to Study the Prohibition of Marijuana in Rhode Island, a panel tasked with exploring the impact marijuana prohibition has had on our state. Composed of a diverse team of individuals, including a bipartisan selection of current lawmakers, esteemed academics, and current and former members of law enforcement, the commission heard testimony from a range of experts on all sides of this important issue.

What we soon realized was that Rhode Island was spending too much time and money arresting individuals whose only crime was to possess a substance that is safer than alcohol. Too many otherwise law-abiding adults are being wrongly saddled with lifelong criminal convictions. In addition, the enforcement of marijuana laws has been unfair—with African Americans facing a higher arrest rate of whites, despite a similar rate of marijuana use.

The commission voted 11–2 to recommend that Rhode Island replace the current criminal penalties for adult possession of small amounts of marijuana—a fine and/or up to a year jail—with a civil fine. Such an approach will not only free up millions of dollars for Rhode Island’s ailing economy but also allow law enforcement to focus on more serious crimes than the simple possession of marijuana by adults. According to the commission’s findings, Rhode Island could save more than $1 million instantly by no longer incarcerating people who possess marijuana. According to Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron, the state would also save about $11.1 million in law enforcement costs. In such tough economic times, these numbers are nothing to scoff at.

Support for such change is very strong in Rhode Island. Bipartisan bills to decriminalize marijuana have been introduced in both the Senate and House with the House version garnering 48% of the members of that chamber as co-sponsors. Under the proposals, half the revenue generated by civil fines for marijuana possession would go toward to the city or town where the offense occurred, and the remaining half would fund drug-awareness education through the state health department.

If the bill becomes law, Rhode Island would become the 13th state in the nation to decriminalize marijuana, joining a diverse group that includes Ohio, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Massachusetts, our neighbor to the north, where in 2008 voters passed a similar decriminalization lawwith 65% of the vote. There have not been problems with increased marijuana use after these laws passed. Several states have instead reported new streams of revenue from the citations now being given in place of a criminal conviction for marijuana possession.

Considering Taxation And Regulation

On April 13, the Rhode Island House Judiciary Committee went where few states before it have gone, holding its first-ever hearing on a bill that would tax and regulate marijuana like alcohol in the state. would be very different from decriminalizing it for one simple reason: under decriminalization laws, the sale of marijuana remains illegal. Taxing and regulating marijuana would remove the drug from the criminal market, allow state-licensed adults over 21 to cultivate up to three marijuana plants for personal use, make it legal for licensed merchants to sell to adults, and allow governments to make tax revenue from its sale.

While this might sound like a wild idea to some, it could be preferable to our status quo.

Right now, our marijuana laws make it easy for teenagers to purchase marijuana for the simple reason that drug dealers do not check ID’s. In fact, Rhode Island—I am sad to admit—has some of the highest rates of teenage marijuana use in the country. If we regulated marijuana, we could better work to keep it away from young people by ensuring that it could be sold only by licensed merchants who would be required to check IDs.

Rhode Island—and the nation—needs new marijuana policies that promote regulation, reason, and responsibility. I’m proud of the work Rhode Island has done thus far toward achieving that goal, and I hope that our small New England state will continue to set an example for others to follow.