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  1. chillinwill
    Should Rhode Island decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana, as some other states, including Massachusetts, have done?

    Judging from the makeup of a newly created commission that met at the State House on Wednesday, that would seem a possible — if not likely — recommendation to state lawmakers when they return in January: roll back the state’s marijuana penalty laws to reduce the prison population and free the police to pursue other crimes.

    Meeting for the first time, the panel included: a criminal-defense attorney, a retired court administrator, a prisoner-rights activist, the head of the Rhode Island nurses’ association, a medical doctor who describes himself as a vigorous “skeptic of the value of [drug] prohibitions and excessive enforcement” and the Harvard University lecturer who authored a June 2005 study predicting tens of millions of dollars in budgetary savings, and millions more in potential new tax revenue for states that legalize and tax marijuana.

    Also on the panel: Sen. Leo Blais, a pharmacist, who in February proposed a bill — The Sensible State Marijuana Policy Act — to decriminalize the possession of an ounce or less of marijuana, reducing it to a civil offense for which anyone age 18 or older would face a $100 fine and forfeiture of the marijuana. The bill never made it out of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

    As chairman, Sen. Joshua Miller, D-Cranston, said he is “openminded,” but also mindful of what his Senate colleagues are likely to “take seriously” during a 2010 legislative session overshadowed by the state’s unrelenting financial crisis.

    Citing the 391 marijuana-related arrests the state police have documented in Rhode Island since Jan. 1, 2008, he said: “I don’t think any legislation is going to be taken seriously in the upcoming session unless it can demonstrate a relief of resources, whether they be human or fiscal. If legislation related to marijuana can demonstrate that, it will be taken seriously I believe.”

    Standing along the sidelines, watching and listening intently, was Orlando Martino, a 36-year-old student at the Lincoln Technical Institute who is headed to state prison — again — next month for possession of a relatively small amount of marijuana in his car when the police stopped him for allegedly running a stoplight.

    With 12 entries on his court record, his story is not simple. In fact, he has an application pending before the Department of Health for permission to use the drug legally — in the future — for migraines, which his doctor at the Crossroads Health Center in Providence has identified as one of the eligible “chronic or debilitating” conditions for which state-licensed patients can use marijuana.

    “A lot of people would say, well, we have medical marijuana, why go any further? Well, clearly the line is incredibly fine. I mean here is someone who will have marijuana, and he doesn’t qualify to stay out of prison,” said Nick Horton, a policy researcher for the Family Life Center. Horton, a member of the Senate’s marijuana study commission, takes credit for helping Martino line up a doctor’s support for his medical-marijuana application.

    “I guess the question is where do you draw the line?” Horton queried, in an interview after the brief commission meeting.

    Miller did not rule out a discussion along the way about legalizing — and taxing — the recreational use of marijuana.

    But in his opening remarks, he said, the commission will “focus its energies” on examining data on marijuana arrests and how much they cost in order to gauge the “the impact of current marijuana policies on the limited resources and funding of state and local law-enforcement agencies and the criminal justice system.”

    He said the commission would also examine what has happened in other states, and hopes to hear from public-health officials and the attorney general from Massachusetts at the panel’s next meeting in December.

    A year ago, Massachusetts became the 13th state to decriminalize small quantities of marijuana.

    Under a ballot measure that won the approval of about 65 percent of state voters, people caught with an ounce or less of marijuana are subject to a $100 civil fine. Offenders younger than 18 are also required to attend a drug-awareness class within a year. The fine increases to $1,000 for those who skip the class.

    The Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association, the Massachusetts Association of District Attorneys, Attorney General Martha Coakley and Governor Patrick opposed the ballot item, saying it would send the wrong message, create a bureaucratic nightmare and probably mean de facto legalization of small amounts of marijuana.

    Absent from the Rhode Island study panel was anyone from Rhode Island law enforcement. Miller said “we did try to get cops … it wasn’t possible by this date,” and at this point, the legislature would have to vote to expand the membership on the panel to include one. Asked where Rhode Island Attorney General Patrick C. Lynch stands, spokesman Michael J. Healey said: “Although it’s too early in the process to know exactly what will come of this, it’s not too early to advise caution. This is no issue to undertake lightly, and a lot of things will have to be examined and discussed at length before we will weigh in on it.”

    Penalties now run from a potential year in jail up to a mandatory 20 years in prison. Rhode Island has had a law on its books since 1989 that allows it to collect $3.50 in taxes “on each gram of marijuana.” That equates a per-ounce tax of $99.22, according to state tax officials. It has not produced any recent revenue for the state.

    BACKGROUND R.I. marijuana possession penalties

    Less than one kilogram: Misdemeanor; up to one year in prison and/or $200 to $500 fine.

    One to five kilograms: Felony; mandatory minimum 10 years in prison; $10,000 to $500,000 fine.

    More than five kilograms: Felony; mandatory minimum 20 years in prison; $25,000 to $100,000 fine.

    R.I. marijuana sale penalties

    Less than one kilogram: Felony; up to 30 years in prison; $3,000 to $100,000 fine.

    One to five kilograms: Felony; mandatory minimum 10 years in prison; $10,000 to $500,000 fine.

    More than five kilograms: Felony; mandatory minimum 20 years in prison; $25,000 to $100,000 fine.

    By Katherine Gregg
    November 19, 2009
    Projo
    http://www.projo.com/news/content/marijuana_commission_11-19-09_VQGGH9B_v20.3c1cc7e.html

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