Bill to Decriminalize Marijuana Unveiled in R.I. Senate

April 8, 2010 - 9:35am

Katherine Gregg, Providence Journal

PROVIDENCE, R.I. - The chairman of the special legislative commission that recommended the decriminalization of marijuana in Rhode Island has introduced a bill to make possession of an ounce or less of the drug by an adult a civil offense, punishable by a $150 fine.

Getting caught a second time would mean a $300 fine, and a third time, a misdemeanor criminal charge, though he bill very specifically says that possession of these relatively small amounts shall not be "considered a violation of parole or probation.''

The bill would send the money raised by the fines back to each of the cities and towns "in which the offense occurred,'' and double any unpaid fines again and again, up to a maximum of $1,000.

The communities would be required to spend half the money on drug-awareness and treatment programs for youth.

The penalty would be the same for those under the age of 18, except their parents would be notified, and they would have to complete a minimum 4-hour drug awareness program, and perform whatever form of community service a court or juvenile hearing board deemed appropriate. Failing to do so would leave them open to $1,000 fines as well, and potential delinquency proceedings.

Thirteen other states have already decriminalized marijuana to some degree, including Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, New York, North Carolina, Ohio and Oregon.

 

The bill unveiled by Sen. Joshua Miller, D-Cranston, is an outgrowth of a months-long study by a Senate-created study of the estimated costs to state and local taxpayers of arresting and prosecuting and jailing people for possession of marijuana.

While the commission never identified the magnitude of the potential savings, it served as a clearinghouse for information on the number of people affected by Rhode Island's marijuana laws, including the 2,546 arrested for first-offense possession of marijuana, the 337 people who were in the state prison awaiting trail, and the 154 who were sentenced to prison for marijuana possession in 2009.

As currently written, the legislation does not free anyone from charges for driving under the influence of the drug, or provide legal cover for anyone who partakes of marijuana when "doing so would constitute negligence or professional malpractice,'' such as smoking the drug in a school bus, on school grounds, in the state prison or any other setting where "exposure to marijuana smoke significantly adversely affects the health, safety, or welfare of children.''

No hearings have been scheduled yet on the newly introduced bill.

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