Projo: Measure would ease marijuana penalties

February 4, 2010 - 1:50pm

By Katherine Gregg

Journal State House Bureau

Nick Horton is a member of the Special Senate Commission studying the decriminalization of marijuana.

The Providence Journal / Connie Grosch

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — A day after more than 30 state lawmakers introduced a bill to make possession of less than an ounce of marijuana a civil offense, subject to a $150 fine, a former undercover narcotics officer for the New Jersey State Police brought his own campaign for decriminalization to Rhode Island.

“A tremendous amount of the staff time and funding for law enforcement is wasted arresting nonviolent drug users who hurt no one,” retired detective Jack Cole told a Senate panel building a case for the potential decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana.

“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 commission chaired by Sen. Joshua Miller, D-Cranston, who does not appear to need much persuading.

Again Wednesday, Miller said he believes his fellow lawmakers will be most “responsive” to arguments “that we are wasting money and time and resources on something that maybe we shouldn’t be wasting money and time and resources on” at a time when all three are in short supply in cash-strapped Rhode Island. Lawmakers are wrestling with back-to-back projected deficits of more than $200 million this year, $427 million next year.

Possession of any amount of marijuana currently carries a criminal penalty of up to one year in jail, and a $500 fine.

The legislation introduced on Tuesday would decriminalize the possession of less than an ounce, which is enough to make about 20 marijuana cigarettes, according to the attorney general’s office.

Passage would place Rhode Island alongside the 12 states that have already decriminalized possession of marijuana to one degree or another: California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, New York, North Carolina, Ohio and Oregon.

But the lead sponsor of the newly filed legislation — Rep. John Edwards, D-Tiverton — issued a statement that said: “This legislation is less about the ongoing debate over the decriminalization of marijuana and more about providing some relief to the taxpayers of this state … The average cost to keep someone at the ACI is more than $44,000 per year. Rhode Island taxpayers should not be paying to keep someone locked up due to a simple possession charge.”

His co-sponsors include: Reps. Samuel A. Azzinaro, D-Westerly; Rep. Rod Driver, D-Richmond; Rep. Brian C. Newberry, R-North Smithfield; Rep. Peter Martin, D-Newport; and at least 29 others.Cole spent 26 years with the New Jersey State Police. As the executive director of the Massachusetts-based Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, Cole campaigned for the November 2008 marijuana decriminalization ballot initiative in Massachusetts. He believes “the drug war is steeped in racism, that it is needlessly destroying the lives of young people, and that it is corrupting our police.”

Sporting a button that said “Cops say legalize drugs: Ask me why,” he told the Senate panel why he believes the war on drugs is a “dismal failure.”

“For 40 years, with a budget of over a trillion dollars, the United States has fought the war on drugs with ever-harsher policies. We have made more than 39 million arrests for nonviolent drug offenses — nearly half of those arrests were for marijuana violations ... And what do we have to show for all those ruined lives and that misspent money? Today, drugs are cheaper, more potent, and far easier for our children to access than they were in the 1970s,” he said.

“Think of all the people you know personally who, as a youngster, used an illegal drug, then put the drugs behind them and went on to live very productive lives. You can do that if you haven’t been arrested,” he said. But, “you will never get over a conviction … A conviction will track you every day of your life because it is on a computer — every time you apply for a job … employers look at your record and say, ‘Druggy, we don’t want you.’ ”

After listening to the 71-year-old Cole deliver his speech, panel member Joseph Osediacz, who ran the narcotics unit for the Rhode Island State Police from 1985-90, said: “Jack, I have to disagree with you … At what point [did you decide] that these arrests are not important?”

Cole’s response: “About three years into undercover work, when actually living out there with those people, I realized that they are not very different from me. They have the same wants and wishes and urges … They want to have some respect in their lives. They want to have a decent job. They want to support their families. “The only difference is they want to put something in their body that I don’t want to put in mine — and look what I put in mine. I mean, I drink straight Jack Daniels every night … that’s a pretty tough drug, but nobody’s going to arrest me for that as long as I don’t hurt anybody.”

Osediacz said: “I cannot see how legalizing marijuana in this state is going to make us a better state.”

kgregg@projo.com

 

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