The question of whether Rhode Island will legalize the recreational use of marijuana seems to be leaning more towards when, not if.
The Marijuana Regulation, Control and Taxation Act, introduced on March 5, has sparked debate among various groups in terms of the ethical, medical and cultural implications of legal marijuana, but supporters of the bill feel legalizing marijuana would be the economic boost Rhode Island needs to get back on its feet.
Despite debate, according to a 2014 Public Policy Poll, 53 percent of Rhode Island voters supports regulating and taxing marijuana.
Jared Moffat, executive director of Regulate Rhode Island, said in his experience an even greater percentage, whether they agree with the legislation or not, believe it is inevitable that marijuana will become legal eventually. His suggestion is to have Rhode Island be the first New England state and to get ahead of the game.
The bill would allow adults 21 and over to possess up to an ounce of marijuana and to cultivate a “single mature plant.”
Regulate Rhode Island is the main organization supporting the Senate and House bills introduced by Senator Josh Miller and Representative John Edwards, respectively. The coalition, which began in 2013, is made up of 26 organizations from across the state and wants to see the prohibition of marijuana lifted.
Moffat said, “This is the right year” to pass legislation for several reasons.
He said the state has now seen the successful model in Colorado, prohibition of the substance is a “failed policy” anyway, and with the majority of the state thinking legalization is inevitable, Rhode Island can get a head start in the marijuana market to help rejuvenate the economy.
Although some may find the legalization inevitable, some are fighting it
“If this is the only way we can improve our economy then we have a serious problem,” Colonel Stephen McCartney of the Warwick Police said in a recent interview.
McCartney has some serious qualms if the legislation were to pass. He said while others discuss about the economic benefits seen after Colorado legalized marijuana, it has been “just plain hell” for law enforcement in that state.
The Rhode Island Police Chiefs Association, of which McCartney is a member, sent representatives to Colorado earlier this month to speak with law enforcement there.
“We wanted to see the problems Colorado is experiencing first hand to enhance our arguments for testimony against this legislation,” McCartney said.
He said marijuana opens doors for other problems, and this legislation is about “more than just someone’s right to smoke.”
According to McCartney, there has been a gradual shift in DUI’s where they no longer just involve alcohol but also a variety of other drugs mixed with the alcohol, something McCartney distinguished as a “dangerous combination.”
Most importantly, McCartney says that despite the legislation having a 21 and older component, legalizing marijuana would be sending a bad message to our state’s youth.
Attorney General Peter Kilmartin is also opposed to the legalization, mainly because of the message Rhode Island’s youth would experience if it were to pass.
“Youth perception of marijuana as a medicine coupled with youth perception of the risk of marijuana is already diminishing due to decriminalization. This legislative measure would bring our state down a slippery slope and would be devastating to our youth who are the future leaders of this state,” Kilmartin said in an email.
He said the state is already battling issues with substance abuse, and this legislation would only compound the problem because although “marijuana is not considered a gateway drug, it certainly is a stepping stone” for those prone to addiction issues.
He also believes that the legalization of marijuana would only further the illegal market instead of depleting it. He believes it to be enabling legislation and points to the current issues seen within the cigarette and medical marijuana markets.
Although there are arguments on both sides, there are still many who land somewhere in the middle of the debate that feel the legislation leaves a lot up to question.
The Department of Health, when questioned about the legislation and the medical repercussions, replied that it “takes no public position at this time.”
Moffat said the main reason people oppose this bill is they have misconceptions on its purpose. Those opposed believe the legislation wants to promote the use of marijuana or attempts to make claims that marijuana is “completely harmless,” he said.
Moffat said, though, that is not what the legislation is trying to do. He said, “Our belief is whether or not you love or hate marijuana and whether or not it is legal or illegal, people are finding ways to access it. The question is rather, whether we want a criminal underground managing it or we want legal businesses and the state to regulate and tax it.”
Rhode Island, he said, is in the perfect position to legalize marijuana because “we have seen Colorado’s successful model” and Rhode Island’s economy can benefit from it.
By being the first state in New England to legalize marijuana, Rhode Island would become the top competitor in the market.
“We don’t need to fall behind the other New England states any more than we already are,” Moffat said.
Similarly, if the legislation were to pass it would be a “major source of job creation,” while bringing in an estimated $58 million in tax revenue annually.
Robert Houghtaling, director of the East Greenwich Drug Program, said there have been positive things to come out of the debate, such as legalizing medical marijuana and decriminalizing it, but still had concerns concerning the current legislation.
Although he also believes there is some inevitability of marijuana legalization, he feels that the state will find it difficult to regulate marijuana under the current legislation and thinks there needs to be more parameters distinguished before passing any sort of legislation.
“Let’s be honest,” Houghtaling said, “not everyone who smokes marijuana is going to become addicted to harsher drugs and not all smokers are going to do so to the point of dysfunction, but how do we monitor those who will? Do you want your pilot smoking two days before you take a flight?”
He agrees that prohibition is not working, but he thinks this debate is coming “40 years late.”
Similarly, Reverend Dr. Don Anderson, the Executive Minister for the Rhode Island State Council of Churches, recognizes that the debate concerning marijuana legalization encompasses a broader context of how our country addresses drugs and that something needs to change.
He said, “We have been fighting the war on drugs for 40 years. We have increased the incarcerated population by five, spent trillions of dollars and we are still seeing the same addiction rates. What we are doing is not working.”
Although he does not know of a viable solution himself as of now, he thinks the legislation “pushes” the conversation in the right direction towards finding a more viable workable solution.
In terms of the inevitability of such legislation passing, Anderson had a slightly different view.
“I hope it is inevitable to see our perception of drugs and how we address drugs and concerns like addiction change,” Anderson said.
Houghtaling said as a society we need to look at the role all drugs play and that our current perception is “shortsighted.”
Senator Sheldon Whitehouse has similar trepidations. Although he would like to see the issue get “a fair listening to,” he said the legislation itself needs to be approached with caution.
He said, “We still face an issue with alcohol and drug addiction, and this brings up an issue of abuse. It raises a lot of questions that I don’t think have been answered yet.”
Houghtaling said, “Our culture is one that still underestimates the potency of prescription drugs and alcohol. We look down on addicts, yet every other commercial is for alcohol or another type of prescription drug. We send a real mixed message, and we owe it to the population to look at that.”