Marijuana Decriminalization: CT, RI Legislatures Following Massachusetts Voters

When it comes to drug policy and criminal law, some states in this country move faster, and more intelligently, than others. Two of those more rational states right now happen to be our New England neighbors, Connecticut and Rhode Island.

I’ve blogged previously about how wasteful and counterproductive state and federal laws are that criminalize the possession and use of small amounts of marijuana for personal use. Individually, states that criminalize the possession or use of less than one ounce of marijuana spend tens of millions of taxpayer dollars arresting and prosecuting an act that is so benign it is actually laughable. Collectively, on a national scale, the states spend hundreds of millions of dollars each year chasing a substance that is medically and scientifically benign. Across the United States, tens of thousands of local and state police spend untold numbers of man-hours and taxpayer dollars “investigating”, arresting and prosecuting people who are no more harmful than their next door neighbor (and who in reality probably are their next door neighbors.) Indeed, on the “harmfulness” scale, pot is exponentially far less harmful than drinking alcohol – yet for persons over 21, drinking is entirely legal. The most irrational, fervent opponent of marijuana decriminalization has yet to explain this glaring contradiction.

This legal schizophrenia is not only ridiculous; it’s unjustified on any level: Medical, legal, financial. As a Dedham, Massachusetts drug offenses lawyer, I can assure you, this is a complete and total waste of taxpayer dollars, law enforcement and prosecutorial resources. Yet, slowly, there is hope that the legal and legislative climate on drug laws is changing. Massachusetts drug laws changed dramatically in the area of pot decriminalization two years ago, but only in response to a state voter referendum – not a legislative act signed by a governor.

That may change soon in our neighboring states of Connecticut and Rhode Island. In Connecticut, legislation is currently being debated that would decriminalize possession and use of less than an ounce of pot, and furthermore (unlike present Massachusetts marijuana law,) allow judges in that state the option of imposing home arrest for nonviolent offenses involving possession of less than 4 ounces of marijuana. That is intelligent drug policy. People arrested for these “offenses” are no more violent than anyone else in society – and they should not be incarcerated behind bars. Jail spaces in our already overcrowded prisons should be reserved for violent criminals who truly belong there – not nonviolent people who wish to use a substance that is far less harmful than alcohol. Making prospects more hopeful in Connecticut, is the fact that both Gov. Daniel P. Malloy and state Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney,( D-New Haven,) support this rationale and sound measure.

A recent poll released by the Quinnipiac Polling Institute reported that 65 percent were in favor of no longer treating possession of small amounts of pot as a crime, and that 79 percent of Connecticut voters were in favor of a medical marijuana bill.

To the south, the Rhode Island General Assembly is currently considering a bill introduced by state Sen. Joshua Miller, (D-Cranston,) to decriminalize the possession of one ounce or less of marijuana. The bill was filed after the findings of a state Senate commission studying the effects of continuing to prohibit marijuana possession, which Miller chaired. Miller has said, “It doesn’t make sense to have our cash-strapped state spending money putting people in prison for possessing a little of something that is less dangerous than some of the things you can legally buy in stores.” Under the bill, marijuana possession would be re-categorized as a civil offense. First-time offenders would pay a fine of $150; second-time offenders would be fined $300. Minors who are fined would also be required to participate in a drug awareness program of at least four hours and complete 10 hours of community service. In addition, their parents would be notified of the offense by the state. How any rational person could oppose this legislation, is beyond me.

Aside from the justice issues involved, these fines offer the state of Rhode Island a tremendous revenue source for needed state programs. Virtually half of the bill’s revenue would be designated for youth drug awareness and treatment programs. The Rhode Island Herald Editorial Board has reported that up to $10 million could be saved in law enforcement and prosecutorial expenses if the measure were passed.

With all these inarguable reasons to decriminalize pot, why hasn’t it happened in more states than the 12 where it is currently decriminalized? Needless drama. Blindness. Politics. And hidden agendas. (Don’t think that police chiefs and police departments who rail on about the “dangers” of marijuana aren’t thinking about keeping their jobs in the process.) Indeed, no less a respected organization than Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), a national organization of retired police and law enforcement officials, has forcefully advocated for marijuana legalization. These former police officers know how foolish the waste of taxpayer dollars is in arresting and prosecuting otherwise everyday, law-abiding citizens is. They also know how counterproductive existing laws are, in fueling illegal drug cartels and dealer networks. Jack Cole, President of LEAP, has said that “Our existing drug laws on marijuana are foolish and counterproductive.” Saddling someone with a criminal record just because he wishes to use marijuana in private is unfair, unwise, and unjust. Let’s hope that our neighbors in Connecticut and Rhode Island, follow our lead – but this time, in the Legislature, signed into law by a governor.

Legalization of marijuana is sound, prudent, logical public policy. The debate should no longer be over whether or not we should legalize marijuana, but how we should legalize it.