Read below for more information about recent events regarding Rhode Island's Marijuana Laws as discussed in The Providence Journal on March 5, 2010:
R.I. Senate panel studying marijuana laws at impass
PROVIDENCE — A Senate commission studying the potential decriminalization of marijuana hit an impasse Wednesday, despite a Harvard lecturer’s estimate that Rhode Island could save upward of $11.2 million annually if the cash-strapped state stopped arresting people with less than an ounce of the drug.
Instead of wrapping up its 3½-month study on Wednesday as the chairman — Sen. Joshua Miller, D-Cranston — had hoped, the panel of lawyers, legislators, past and present police officers, a nurse, a doctor and a medical-marijuana patient agreed to return to the State House one more time to try to figure out where they do agree.
Possession of any amount of marijuana currently carries a criminal penalty of up to one year in jail, and a $500 fine.
Though no votes were taken, Miller said it appeared to him the majority would back a version of legislation already introduced in the House and Senate to make possession of an ounce or less of marijuana a civil infraction, punishable by a $150 fine. Even Miller came away from the discussion unsure whether the panel would back a second concept that he called a personal priority: making sure that no one is sent to prison, as a probation or parole violator, for getting caught with a small amount of marijuana.
Even though Massachusetts has already decriminalized it, the prospect of downgrading marijuana-possession to a civil offense ignited a spirited exchange between panel members Joseph Osediacz, who ran the narcotics unit for the Rhode Island State Police from 1985-90, and Dr. David Lewis, the founder of alcohol and addiction studies at Brown University, with Osediacz, saying “We’re actually saying it’s still OK to smoke this stuff. I am totally against that.”
Lewis responded: “We’ve got penalties … We’ve got prevention messages about driving … I mean, what we are saying is we are not going to use the criminal justice system [exclusively] as a way of regulating it.”
“But doctor, if someone were to tell me that marijuana was not a dangerous drug, I would go along with it,” Osediacz said.
“I didn’t say that,” said Lewis, who only an hour earlier had given panelists a rundown of some of the adverse effects of marijuana, including “anxiety and panic, especially in naive users … psychotic symptom is [at high doses] … road crashes if a person drives while intoxicated.”
He said marijuana has also been cited as a cause — or at least, a contributing cause — to what he called “impaired educational attainment in adolescents who are regular users,” and “subtle cognitive impairment in those who are a daily user for 10 years or more.”
“So why are we saying it’s OK?” Osediacz pressed.
“I would say yes, it can be a very dangerous drug,” Lewis said. “The question is whether we want to use the criminal justice system the way that we do… There are [also] some arguments about law-enforcement priorities.”
Former state Rep. Joseph Moran, who is now the Central Falls police chief and head of the Rhode Island Police Chiefs Association, questioned the savings expectations in light of the costly extra steps that, he said, local police officers would have to take to prove driving-under-the-influence by drivers involved in crashes, who had smoked or ingested marijuana.
He said a police officer can conduct Breathalyzer tests in the field, while they would be required to get a suspected marijuana-influenced driver to a hospital to get blood drawn.
But one of the commission members — Harvard University lecturer Jeffrey Miron — left the panel with some eye-popping projections of potential savings.
Miron suggested Rhode Island could both save as much as $11.2 million a year, by forgoing the arrest of about 1,000 people annually on marijuana charges, and as much as $40.5 million by legalizing the drug. His estimates, which did not even take into account the expense of prosecuting and jailing offenders, assumed each arrest cost more than $10,000.
His numbers were huge by way of comparison with the $232,000 that state prison officials projected in potential savings, if people were not in jail for marijuana. Since few people actually go to jail for marijuana possession alone, they said it was hard for them to analyze how many fewer prisoners that would have in their cells. But Miron said he believed his estimates were on the low side.
Miron also dangled the potential for $7.6 million in new revenue if the state decided to tax — rather than prosecute — marijuana possession. His projection was based on an assumed 50-percent excise-tax on each marijuana sale.
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