Col. Stephen McCartney can’t see how decriminalizing the possession of an ounce or less of marijuana will save the court’s time or, as sponsors of the measure say, the futures of those who made a mistake and are now branded a criminal.
On Tuesday, the Senate and House approved legislation sponsored by Sen. Joshua Miller (D-Dist. 28, Cranston, Warwick) and Rep. John G. Edwards (D-Dist. 70, Tiverton, Portsmouth) to eliminate the criminal charge and instead impose a civil penalty of $150 and forfeiture of the drug. A third offense within 18 months of the last offense would be treated as a misdemeanor. Currently, possession of even small amounts of marijuana is a misdemeanor under state law and is punishable by up to one year in jail and a fine of up to $500.
“I’ve got concerns … we’re going into murky waters,” McCartney said in an interview yesterday morning.
“How is it ruining people’s lives?” the chief asked of the existing law. “I’m very skeptical of that.”
He said he could not think of a past situation where someone with a first possession without other complications got sent to prison. Also, he doesn’t buy the argument that people with a record of a single offense can’t find a job.
However, Representative Edwards said he introduced the measure for three reasons.
“Firstly, I don’t think people should have a charge on their record that stays there forever because of a bad decision made during their teen years.
“Secondly, the state is going to save a little money from this because we won’t be incarcerating as many people,” he said.
Thirdly, Edwards cited 14 other states that passed similar legislation and that “this is the right ting to do.”
McCartney speculated the legislation, if passed, “will probably make the district court judges happy,” as they will see a reduction in cases. But, on the other hand, he thought they could “clog up” the Rhode Island Traffic Tribunal that would handle what amounts to a court summons. And, given the high volume of outstanding warrants for failure to appear for so many offenses, McCartney believes lessening the penalty for marijuana will prompt people to “laugh off” a charge and not appear. The result will be more FTA warrants.
“I hope I’m wrong, but I’m very skeptical,” he said.
The legislation passed the House 50-24. In the Senate, the vote was 28-6. The House must now approve the Senate bill and visa versa before it goes to the governor. That is expected to happen by next week, although, as of yesterday, the votes hadn’t been scheduled.
In a release, Senator Miller said the Special Senate Commission to Study the Prohibition of Marijuana hearings that took place in 2010 really made a difference in how some of his colleagues and members of the public viewed the prospect of decriminalization.
“I think the commission lured out some of the real benefits that can come from this legislation,” Miller said in a statement.
Miller, who chaired the commission, said, “Not only will it have economic benefits tied to law enforcement, judiciary and incarceration costs, but it will be especially beneficial for young people. During the commission hearings, it was clear that education and treatment was the favored way of dealing with minors’ use of pot. No one wants to see opportunities in higher education closed off to someone because of criminal charges related to marijuana.”
During the House floor debate, questions were raised on how police could identify someone under the influence of marijuana versus another drug, alcohol or even opiates.
McCartney said that most arrests for possession of marijuana occur during traffic stops during the weekends or holidays when people are partying. He said that many of the city’s officers are DREs or drug recognition experts, but that more would probably need to be trained. A blood test is needed to make a definitive identification, which can be problematic McCartney said.
He said situations where people are operating a vehicle under the influence of drugs are treated no differently than those driving under the influence of alcohol.
A major concern, he said, “is the message it sends to our youth … does this make it easier for them to justify smoking marijuana?”
Warwick Vets Principal Gerald Habershaw agrees.
“If they think it’s legal, then they’re going to do it,” he said yesterday in a telephone interview. Habershaw said he’s seen a decline in the use of marijuana and an increase in the use of “pills” or opiates.
“I understand why Edwards put this in,” said Rep. Patricia Morgan (R-Dist. 26).
Rep. Charlene Lima (D-Dist 14) also said she’s never heard of anyone overdosing on marijuana. She also feels it’s a drug that does not lead to other drugs.
“If you have an innocent kid that’s just trying something, they could have a record that could destroy him for life,” she said. “It could really hurt a kid that is just experimenting with marijuana.”