PROVIDENCE — Sending people to jail for possessing a tiny amount of marijuana is excessive, wastes resources and goes against public opinion, supporters of a bill to decriminalize possession of less than an ounce of the drug told the Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday.
Rhode Island has legalized the use of marijuana for medical purposes. The decriminalization bill proposed by Sen. Leo R. Blais, D-Coventry, would not make marijuana legal, but it would reduce possession of an ounce or less from a crime that carries a potential year of jail time to a civil violation with a maximum penalty of a $100 fine and forfeiture of the marijuana.
“This is far cry from complete legalization,” said Nick Horton of the Family Life Center, a social service organization that helps people with criminal records rebuild their lives. He called the Blais bill “measured reform, not legalization.”
No one spoke against the bill. The committee — as it did with nearly all bills it heard testimony on last night — voted to hold it for further study.
Horton said Rhode Island police agencies arrest about 2,500 people a year for marijuana possession and a recent study by his group showed 600 people were being held in the Adult Correctional Institutions last year for possession of less than an ounce of marijuana. At an average cost of $40,000 per inmate per year, he said, that costs the state about $24 million.
Under Rhode Island law, possession of an ounce or less of marijuana is a misdemeanor that carries a maximum of one year in jail and a fine of between $200 and $500. Besides a lesser penalty, Blais’ bill would make possession a civil violation, which would not go on an individual’s criminal record.
Jack A. Cole, a former New Jersey State Police detective, who said he helped put as many as 1,000 people in jail for marijuana offenses, said reducing the charge to a civil penalty was one of the most important benefits of the bill. When someone gets a marijuana conviction on their record, he said, it jeopardizes their ability to get financial aid for education or a job.
“You can get over an addiction, but you will never get over a conviction,” Cole said. “A conviction will track you every day of your life because it is on a computer. Every time you apply for a job, it is over your head like an ugly cloud. … The only place these people find acceptance is right back in the drug culture, the very group from whom we say we are trying to save them.”
Cole is the executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, an organization of former police officers, prosecutors and other justice system officials whom he said feel the nation’s marijuana laws are self-defeating.
Also supporting the bill was Steven Brown, executive director of the Rhode Island Affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Blais said his bill was patterned after the law that was approved by referendum in Massachusetts last fall. Voters there passed decriminalization with 65 percent of the vote. Cole said 12 states have decriminalized possession of an ounce or less of marijuana.
He cited the 65-percent yes vote over the state border as a reason to support the legislation in Rhode Island, though it prompted another observation from committee Vice Chairman Charles J. Levesque, D-Portsmouth.
“Most decriminalization has been by referendum,” he said.
By John Hill
March 18, 2009