Legislation to legalize the recreational use of marijuana has once again sparked speculation and debate as to if Rhode Island should become the third state to legalize the drug. But this time it appears the idea has the support of not only the public, but a number of those involved in drug prevention and recovery efforts.
Following coverage of Senator Joshua Miller and Representative Edith Ajello’s filing of a bill that would make Rhode Island the first New England state to legalize marijuana, an online poll was set up on the Warwick Beacon’s website asking visitors if they believed the legislation should pass; a majority of 65 percent said yes.
According to a General Assembly press release regarding the legislation, 53 percent of Rhode Islanders surveyed in January by a Public Policy Polling survey were in support of changing state law to regulate and tax marijuana similarly to alcohol.
Of the 244 responding to the online Beacon poll, 155 favored legalizing marijuana.
Comments in favor of the legislation continued on the Beacon’s Facebook page, with a number of individuals expressing their opinion that pros of the legalization outweigh the cons.
“Yep, and this coming from a non-smoker,” wrote Kara Neary Cravin. “Maybe it will stop people from overdosing on all these ‘legal’ pills they keep taking.”
“Absolutely … if it can make money for the state, why not?” wrote Renee Gibbons.
“Coming from someone that’s never tried it before, yes. But only with regulations like tobacco products and alcohol have. It could be a great source of tax revenue for our struggling state,” wrote Amanda Burden.
It seems that public opinion is swaying toward legalization, and many professionals from the drug prevention and youth programming world seem to agree.
President and CEO of The Kent Center for Human and Organizational Development David S. Lauterbach, ACSW, explained that his organization is dedicated to helping individuals facing behavioral health challenges, and he and his staff often witness the effects of substance abuse in clients. However, they understand that individuals who misuse drugs are attempting to escape a history of trauma and should not be treated as criminals.
“While we need to make every effort to keep all drugs that have the potential for abuse out of the hands of our children, we also need to take a realistic approach. The only way to decrease substance abuse is to better educate our society on the appropriate and inappropriate use of drugs. Our youths need to be properly informed so that when they face peer pressure to take drugs, they will make their decisions based upon facts, not fear,” said Lauterbach in a statement to the Beacon.
Lauterbach added the public should be educated about the risks of drugs at an earlier age. In his statement, he calls the “war on drugs” a “tremendous failure,” costing Americans untold dollars and lives.
“By legalizing and regulating marijuana, we will decrease the amount of stress on our criminal court system and prisons,” said Lauterbach. “We can use the funds raised by taxing sales of marijuana to increase public awareness about the use and dangers of drugs. And we can provide trauma-informed services to substance abusers in a safe outpatient environment instead of behind the cold bars of a prison cell.”
Bob Houghtaling, director of the East Greenwich Drug Program, agrees that those suffering from addiction or serving jail time for drug-related incidents would be better served by treatment programs than being treated as a criminal. He explained that if marijuana use was properly regulated and monitored, similar to alcohol, he could support legalization of the drug.
“They would have to jump through a bunch of hoops,” he added.
However, he did express that marijuana is still a drug and many people may underestimate its potency. “I hate to start an argument with it’s bad, but not as bad as something else,” said Houghtaling, who admits he is a supporter of appropriately regulated medicinal marijuana. “You have to be careful; don’t minimize it. It’s still a drug.”
Houghtaling added that even if an individual is not addicted to marijuana, the drug can still affect one’s perception and reaction time. There would need to be laws against driving under the influence and the like, he said.
Patricia St. Amant, head of the Warwick Youth Programs Advisory and Prevention Task Force, equated the debate of legalizing marijuana to the times of prohibition, predicting legalization would have the same effect on young people as alcohol.
“The Task Force will never condone possession of marijuana by a minor,” said St. Amant.
However, St. Amant understands the arguments for legalization and can support the legislation because it will lead to regulations for those who are of age.
“I think their argument is that it will help in a lot of different ways,” she added.
Houghtaling and St. Amant both believe if marijuana were to be legalized, efforts to educate young kids and teens about the dangers of drug use would need to continue, if not increase.
“We have a lot of education we need to do,” added Houghtaling, predicting that legalization would lead to a slight spike in teen marijuana use, but that can also be attributed to the culture they have lived in. “They are growing up in a culture where over the past five years marijuana has been downgraded as a serious drug.”
While she feels the legalization of marijuana will “muddy the waters,” St. Amant agreed that most young people already believe that marijuana is acceptable because of it’s medical uses, and legalization in Colorado and Washington.
“General surgeons are telling them it’s OK; senators are telling them it’s OK,” said St. Amant, admitting she is conflicted over the issue.
“What concerns me the most is that our community is going to do the best to educate and let the kids be kids for as long as possible,” she said.
Both professionals also add that in terms of drug problems, the recent overdoses on prescription pills and heroine in the state are much more concerning than the legalization of marijuana.
“We have a gigantic prescription meds and heroine problem we should be at least as worried about,” said Houghtaling, admitting he is much more afraid of oxycontin use than marijuana.
“You can’t equate marijuana to heroin,” added St. Amant.
Even if marijuana became legalized, St. Amant knows the key to keep it out of the hands of young people will come from loved ones, not a law.
“Prevention comes from home. Prevention comes from keeping them busy,” she said.
But still, there are those on the other side of the debate, hoping to keep recreational marijuana illegal.
“In countries like Amsterdam, Netherlands and Portugal, where pot has been legalized, governments are pulling back because use of other drugs have increased and crimes associated with drug use needs have not decreased,” wrote Bill Paola on the Beacon’s Facebook page.
Two city officials also standing against the legalization of marijuana are Warwick Mayor Scott Avedisian and Police Chief Col. Stephen McCartney.
“I have been and will again oppose legalizing marijuana,” said McCartney in an email to the Beacon. “I am well aware that my opposition goes against public opinion.”
“It is my belief that the Colonel is opposed to the legislation and I share his views,” said Avedisian.
While Avedisian and McCartney kept their comments simple, Johnston Mayor Joseph Polisena elaborated on why he felt legalization was the wrong move.
“We need more jobs in the state, not more people getting high,” said Polisena.
Polisena said the assertion that legalizing marijuana would provide a fiscal boon to Rhode Island is “nonsense” and a “façade.” He called marijuana a “gateway drug” that can lead people – particularly youths – down a dangerous path, and cited concerns over public safety issues, such as people driving while under the influence.
Polisena said it is “very frustrating” to see legislative attention directed away from the economic challenges facing the state, and added that he believes most members of the community feel the same way.
“I think we should be focusing on the economy in this state, not legalizing marijuana,” he said. “We need to keep creating jobs.”
Both the Senate and House bills (2014-S 2379, 2014-H 7506) have been referred to their respective Judiciary committees.