An Act to Amend Marijuana Possession Penalties in Rhode Island
By Paul Armentano
Deputy Director, National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws
March 21, 2012
I'd like to thank the members of the House Judiciary Committee for holding this hearing regarding H 7092, which seeks to amend state law so that the adult possession of an ounce or less of marijuana is reclassified from a criminal misdemeanor -- punishable by a criminal record and up to a year in jail -- to a civil offense. This common sense change will ensure that adults who solely possess small quantities of marijuana for their own personal use will no longer be subject to arrest or criminal prosecution, or the emotional, social, and financial hardships that follow.
I have examined the subject of marijuana enforcement and its impact upon use patterns and behavior for nearly 20 years. I have published more than 1,000 articles and white papers regarding cannabis and its legal and physiological effects, testified before numerous state and federal committees, and have contributed chapters to more than a dozen anthologies and college textbooks. It is my professional opinion that otherwise law-abiding citizens who use marijuana responsibly are not part of the crime problem and we must stop treating them like criminals.
I grew up in Westerly, Rhode Island and take a particular interest in this legislative proposal. I believe that House Bill 7092 is a fiscally sensible measure that will better enable police, prosecutors, and the courts to reallocate their existing resources toward activities that will better serve the public.
Annually, an estimated three thousand Rhode Island citizens are criminally prosecuted for marijuana offenses, mostly for minor possession — not trafficking or sales. These arrests and prosecutions are an unnecessary drain on the state's limited criminal justice resources. By contrast, passage of HB 7092 has been estimated to result in one-quarter of one million dollars annually in criminal justice savings. A recent statewide poll, conducted in January by the Public Policy Polling Firm, shows that 65 percent of Rhode Island residents support this change in state law.
To date, fourteen states -- including Nebraska, Ohio, Maine, and Mississippi -- have enacted similar penalties for marijuana possession offenses. In 2008, 65 percent of Massachusetts voters approved decriminalization legislation by voter initiative. In 2010, the Connecticut Legislature also decriminalized marijuana possession offenses, a change which led to a 75 percent reduction in criminal marijuana arrests and prosecutions in its first year. Passage of these measures has not led to increased marijuana use or altered the public's perceptions regarding the potential harms of drug use. In fact, population surveys show that fewer people in these states, such as Nebraska and Mississippi, use marijuana compared to the national average. In fact, the only US government study ever commissioned to assess whether the enforcement of strict legal penalties positively impacts marijuana use found, "Overall, the preponderance of the evidence which we have gathered and examined points to the conclusion that decriminalization has had virtually no effect either on the marijuana use or on related attitudes and beliefs about marijuana use among American young people."
In 2010, a special Rhode Island Senate committee advocated reducing marijuana possession penalties to a civil offense. the committee reported that over 91 percent of the state's marijuana arrests are for possession only. Of those first-time offenders sentenced to incarceration, defendants on average were sentenced to 3.5 months in jail. Less seldom emphasized penalties associated with a minor marijuana arrest include probation and mandatory drug testing, loss of employment, loss of child custody, removal from subsidized housing, asset forfeiture, loss of federal student aid, loss of voting privileges, loss of adoption rights, and the loss of certain federal welfare benefits such as food stamps. We should stop destroying people's lives and impeding citizens' ability to make a living over a minor marijuana possession offense.
In conclusion, House Bill 7092 is a fiscally responsible proposal that will cut costs without altering the public's attitudes or use of marijuana. I urge this Committee to support HB 7092.
Paul Armentano, a native of Westerly, Rhode island, is the deputy Director for NORML and is the co-author of the book, Marijuana Is Safer: So Why Are We Driving People to Drink (Chelsea Green, 2009).
 Associated Press. "RI prisons could save $232K by easing marijuana law." January 19, 2010.
 Connecticut Post. "Pot tickets reducing judicial burden." February 28, 2012.
 Institute for Social Research, The University of Michigan, 1981. Monitoring the Future Occasional Paper 13. Marijuana Decriminalization: The Impact on Youth 1975-1980.