Marijuana decriminalization bill goes to R.I. General Assembly tonight

PROVIDENCE — Rhode Island may join its neighbor states, Massachusetts and Connecticut, in passing legislation that decriminalizes the possession of less than one ounce of marijuana. The bill goes to the floor of the House and Senate chambers of the General Assembly tonight. Marijuana would still remain a controlled substance, but should the measure pass the general assembly, adults caught in possession of the drug for the first time would no longer be subject to arrest. Such offenses would be subject to drug confiscation and $150 fines similar to those incurred by speeding tickets. The bill further stipulates that someone caught with marijuana three times within 18 months will be subject to arrest for up to 30 days. Individuals caught driving under the influence of the drug would remain subject to arrest. Right now a person caught in possession of marijuana may get up to a year in jail and receive a fine of up to $500. Rep. John G. Edwards, D-Tiverton and Portsmouth, sponsor of the House version of the bill, H 7092 A, said its purpose is “to alleviate going forward” the impact of what he called “youthful indiscretions” on one’s criminal record. A drug charge on a background check can impact a person’s student loan eligibility and ability to work in certain fields, like health care and education.

The bill won’t wipe clean the records of those with prior convictions, but “would end the issue, hopefully,” said Edwards, who also serves as vice chair of the House Committee on Labor. In the bill, minors caught with marijuana must go through a drug awareness program and perform community service. Individuals caught possessing more than one ounce will still be subject to arrest, as possession of large amounts no longer constitutes what Edwards considers “personal use.” Marijuana has been legalized for medical use in the state for some time. Still, a bill to decriminalize it was defeated in the General Assembly last year. This time, Edwards said, the bill has broad bipartisan support. Rep. Dan Gordon, also D-Tiverton and Portsmouth, expressed his support for it, noting that the state’s Adult Correctional Institute is over capacity. “There are currently over 300 people in intake,” Gordon said. “It’s a step in the right direction … pulling back government from making choices for people. It’s an overreach for government. That shouldn’t be a function for government.” Industries would retain the right to screen and bar current users from working in their fields, Edwards said.

For instance, construction workers should not be users while employed. Gordon agreed. “Zero tolerance, first offense, off the job,” he said. “These are the people that put together our roadways, our highways, our bridges.” Tiverton Police Chief Thomas Blakey declined to share a personal opinion on the matter of decriminalization, stating that the police department “will enforce whatever the legislature dictates.” Edwards acknowledged some of the concerns of those who oppose the measure. One such concern is that, once decriminalized, marijuana use will go up. Edwards said studies conducted by the University of Connecticut showed that usage did not increase. Arguments that marijuana use will lead to the use of drugs like cocaine and heroin don’t hold water, Edwards said. He referred to tobacco as the actual gateway drug: “Nicotine is a lot more addictive.” Edwards thinks it’s time for Rhode Island to catch up with its neighboring states. “Our citizens are being penalized, when you go can across the border and won’t face those same charges,” he said.

via : Taunton Gazette

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