Earlier this evening, June 5, 2012, the Rhode Island General Assembly overwhelming approved twin bills that would – for most offenses – remove the threat of jail time for the simple possession of marijuana. The companion bills – S2253/H7092 – would replace the current criminal charge for simple possession – up to a year in jail and/or up to a $500 fine – with a $150 civil offense. Individuals under the age of 18 would be subject to the same civil violation and would also be required to attend a drug education course as well as perform community service. A third marijuana possession offense within 18 months could result in a misdemeanor conviction punishable by up to 30 days in jail and/or a fine of up to $500. The twin bills must now each get a vote in the other legislative chamber. Then, they will go to Gov. Lincoln Chafee to sign into law, veto, or allow to become law without his signature.
Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron estimated that this proposal could save the state of Rhode Island up to $11 million dollars annually. In addition, allowing law enforcement to issue a simple citation as opposed to making an arrest for marijuana possession will free up law enforcement time to prevent, investigate, and solve crimes of violence and against property. Finally, by ending the draconian practice of criminalizing simple possession, many Ocean Staters will be spared from being labeled criminals for non-violent behavior – a label that carries a host of terrible collateral consequences.
While today’s votes are indeed great news, MPP and our allies’ work is not done. Chafee has stated that he’ll review the bill once it hits his desk. If you live in Rhode Island, please let Gov. Chafee know about the many benefits that enactment of this legislation can confer upon his state and the people who reside in it. Fourteen states have already removed the threat of jail time for the simple possession of marijuana and there have been no deleterious consequences: the sky’s still blue, the water still wet, and the use rates just as varied in those states that have decriminalized marijuana possession compared to those that have not. Meanwhile, the states have saved hundreds of millions of dollars and tens of thousands of adults have been spared a humiliating arrest for using a substance that is safer than alcohol.