Marijuana bills were in abundance at the State House this week as committees heard testimony for bills regarding medical marijuana and the decriminalization and legalization of the drug.
Proponents of marijuana decriminalization and legalization turned out at the State House Tuesday evening to testify in favor of two new bills.
The bill to decriminalize the drug, introduced by Sen. Joshua Miller (D-Dist. 28, Cranston, Warwick) was heard by the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The bill would make the possession of one ounce or less of marijuana a civil (not a criminal) offense, punishable by a fine of $150 and forfeiture of the drug. The same would be true for juvenile offenders. This punishment would be applicable on the first and subsequent offences. Possession of more than one ounce would be a misdemeanor crime punishable by jail time or a fine between $200 and $500. Thirteen states, including Massachusetts, have decriminalized marijuana.
Rep. Frank Ferri (D-Dist. 22, Warwick) is a co-sponsor of a similar bill in the House.
“It just makes sense,” he said of decriminalizing the drug. “Alcohol is probably worse than marijuana.”
Ferri said the debate over marijuana is reminiscent of the prohibition era, when proponents wanted alcohol to legally distributed, regulated and taxed.
Ferri said he would like to see that happen with marijuana.
Another bill, introduced by Sen. Rhoda Perry (D-Dist. 3, Providence) would legalize marijuana completely.
According to legislative findings, “more than seven decades of arresting marijuana users had failed to prevent marijuana use.” The bill also states that one 100 million Americans have used marijuana, including the last three Presidents. The findings also point out the high rates of violence, death and arrests surrounding the drug and its distribution. The legislation asserts that the legalization of marijuana would allow police to focus on “serious crimes,” which would result in increased safety and savings.
The bill would legalize the possession of less than one ounce of the drug or fewer than three plants. However, those who grow the plants must obtain a state-issued zip tie, which would cost the grower $100 per year per plant. Retailers would be able to apply for a license to sell the drug, but an excise tax would be charged to wholesalers to the tune of $50 per ounce. Taxes collected from sales would eventually be distributed to the state’s general fund, with money going in part to the Department of Health for the funding substance abuse prevention and treatment programs. Ten percent of the monies generated would also go towards clinical research of medical marijuana efficacy.
Both Perry and Miller’s bills are being held for further study. Rep. Joseph Trillo (R-Dist. 24, Warwick) said he would not be in favor of legalizing the drug, but se’s also on the fence about approving medical marijuana for fear it would be abused.
“It could turn into a cottage industry,” he said.
Yesterday the House Committee on Health, Education and Welfare and the Senate Committee on Health and Human Services was slated to hear a bill that would add stricter regulations to the Edward O. Hawkins and Thomas C. Slater Medical Marijuana Act.
The bills, introduced by Sen. Perry and Rep. Scott Slater (D-Dist. 10, Providence) seek to prohibit the federal government from shutting down the three state approved compassion centers. The bill would allow the Department of Health to regulate the amount of marijuana compassion centers can grow and possess. It would also allow caregivers to sell excess amount of marijuana grown, as long as it stays under the legal limit.
Rep. Joseph McNamara (D-Dist. 19, Warwick, Cranston) said the issue with medical marijuana must be resolved. He said the legislation has some great ideas, like a 24-hour hotline that would allow police to verify the validity of medical marijuana cards. He also said the bill prohibits people with criminal backgrounds from being caregivers, or growers of the plant.
“It strengthens existing laws,” said McNamara of the House bill. “It’s going to be helpful in the long run.”
Trillo said he is sympathetic to those who have spoken in favor of the drug for pain management, but he still hasn’t been completely swayed.
“Originally I was in favor of it,” he said yesterday before the hearing. “I have to hear all the arguments before I could vote either way.”