Warwick Chief of Police Stephen McCartney sees decriminalization of marijuana as “a piece of legislation that will do more harm than good to our society.”
“It is believed that the issue of decriminalization has created the illusion that marijuana use and possession is really ‘no big deal,’ particularly with our youth,” said McCartney in an e-mail. “This will most likely result in an increase of marijuana use by juveniles and those persons 25 years or younger.”
During a press conference yesterday, Senator Joshua Miller, Representative Jay Edwards and representatives from Protect Families First (PFF) argued that there was no evidence showing a correlation between a decriminalization law and an increase in use.
“The evidence clearly shows that states with medical marijuana laws or decriminalization laws do not have higher teen use rates than states without those measures,” said Rebecca McGoldrick, executive director of PFF, citing data from the CDC showing no increase in teen usage in Massachusetts since they decriminalized marijuana in 2008.
Rhode Island’s law, signed last June by Governor Lincoln Chafee, means any individual caught with up to an ounce of marijuana would be subject to a $150 fine for first and second offenses, to be settled in Rhode Island Traffic Tribunal (RITT). Rhode Island is the 15th state to enact a decriminalization law.
“Basically what has happened here is a transfer of cases from the District Court to RITT,” said McCartney. “What effect this will have on court calendars and potential court backlogs will remain to be seen.”
He added that it would be interesting to see how RITT handles the increase in caseloads.
If an individual has three violations, they will face larger fines or jail time.
The fine is applicable to those 18 and older; those under 18 will have to complete a drug-awareness program and community service. Their parents would also be notified.
McCartney said legislation such as this, which has occurred in 14 other states already, has led to “a very strong, misplaced perception that marijuana is basically no worse than alcohol and should be tolerated legally in the same fashion.”
“Despite strong testimony from certain medical circles, the U.S. government and specifically, the U.S. Federal Food & Drug Administration that are the ‘duty experts,’ have consistently maintained that marijuana is a schedule I drug and should stay that way.”
Representatives from PFF admitted their support of decriminalization was a step toward better regulation and the safety of those who use marijuana.
“We promote healthy policies that reduce the harms associated with use,” said McGoldrick. “We also want to reduce use.”
She added that, while the substance would need to be legalized to properly regulate it, straight out legalization does not speak to all of the concerns PFF feels should be addressed for regulation.
Dr. David Lewis, founder of Brown University’s Center for Alcohol and Addition Studies, promoted better regulation and education moving forward.
“Users should not be made into criminals,” said Lewis. “Marijuana regulation would be a great tool for improving public health because it would allow us to set age limits, control potency and regulate labeling that ensures people are aware of what they are getting.”
Miller and Edwards, who were primary sponsors of this bill, agree that education is the best way to reach young people and still feel decriminalization will save the state money.
“The day is here,” said Miller who advocated education and treatment over incarceration throughout the meeting. He even mentioned the fact that the law was not immediately put into effect, to allow law enforcement to determine what they needed in their procedures and policies to comply with the new law.
“The reason I got involved with this issue was to prevent a youthful indiscretion from ruining a person’s life,” said Edwards. “Marijuana is something that millions of Americans experiment with, and those who were unfortunate enough to be caught are still being punished years, and sometimes decades, later.”
Edwards believes the state could save between $1 million and $4 million in incarceration costs alone; he says it costs the state $44,000 per inmate. Through visits to the ACI, Edwards said he learned that many marijuana users were incarcerated because using it violated parole. The new law removes marijuana use as a parole violation.
“Rhode Island is taking a more sensible approach to marijuana,” said Michelle McKenzie, spokesperson for PFF. She added that “sweeping people into the criminal justice system” for simple possession was not an effective way to help them.
According to McCartney, the number of individuals in jail for simple possession is not as high as many believe.
“The truth is that even when these cases were going to District Court, no one was going to jail for a simple possession case. The reality was that the offender was taken to the station, processed and then released on a District Court summons. He was out of the police station before the police officer could finish the report,” said McCartney.
The chief is also concerned with individuals who chose to drive under the influence.
“There was strong factual evidence by the number of District Court cases that show that marijuana possession by persons operating a motor vehicle, thus creating potential operator impairment issues,” said McCartney. “Procedurally, this will be very challenging for law enforcement, as the procedure for prosecuting even a decriminalized possession case still involves the same amount of time, maybe longer, than before.”
He adds that more officers will now need to be trained as drug recognition experts, which will cost cities and towns training dollars.
With so much discussion on the importance of regulation, Edwards said he sees legalization somewhere in the future, but not for a number of years.
“This is a good step towards that,” he said. “I believe in the long-term solution, but I am not sure when that will come.”