Drug Decriminalization Bill Unveiled in Rhode Island

    Six Rhode Island senators introduced legislation last week that would end criminal penalties for possessing small amounts of drugs and instead impose a $100 civil fine, the latest state-level effort to stop imprisoning people for simple drug possession offenses.

    The bill, S. 604, was introduced the same day Rhode Island Gov. Dan McKee (D) unveiled a plan to legalize marijuana for adult use through his 2022 budget proposal. Earlier last week, legislative leaders introduced their own measure to legalize and regulate commercial sales of cannabis.

    The separate Senate drug decriminalization bill would not legalize the substances, but it would significantly reduce penalties for possessing them. Under current state law, possession is classified as a crime and subject to up to three years imprisonment and as much as $5,000 in fines. A criminal record brings another set of consequences, often denying access to employment, education, housing and public services.

    S. 604 would replace those penalties with a $100 civil fine and no threat of jail time. The bill also bars law enforcement from arresting people for possessing drugs, although individuals could still be arrested if they fail to truthfully identify themselves to police for a citation.

    Fines would double if not paid within 30 days and double again after 90 days.

    The substances themselves would stay illegal under the proposal, subject to seizure if found. State laws against manufacturing, distributing or possessing with the intent to distribute would also remain in place.

    Rhode Island lawmakers are considering the establishment of safe consumption sites.

    The measure includes a few other policy changes, such as lowering the state’s fine for people between 17 and 18 years old caught with less than an ounce of marijuana to $100, down from the current $150 fine. It also specifies that people caught possessing drugs could be subject to performing up to 100 hours of community service or completing a drug-counseling and education program.

    S. 604 was introduced Thursday by Sens. Tiara Mack, Jonathon Acosta, Cyntha Mendes, Jeanine Calkin, Kendra Anderson and Samuel Bell, all Democrats. It has been referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee but hasn’t yet been scheduled for a hearing.

    Separately, Rhode Island lawmakers are considering the establishment of safe consumption sites in an effort to stem an onslaught of overdose deaths that has only gotten worse during the pandemic. The state Senate last month passed legislation that would legalize what the bill calls “harm reduction centers,” defined as “community based resource[s] for health screening, disease prevention and recovery assistance where persons may safely consume pre-obtained controlled substances.”

    If the House passes a companion bill and the governor signs the legislation, Rhode Island would be the first US state to legalize the sites, which advocates say could prevent overdose deaths and destigmatize substance use disorders.

    Meanwhile, McKee and leaders in the Senate are pushing competing versions of legislation to legalize marijuana. Though the proposals differ on taxes, social equity provisions and how the new markets would be regulated, both are notably different from the plan put forward by former Gov. Gina Raimondo (D) prior to her leaving office to join the Biden administration. Raimondo’s plan would have created a state-run cannabis industry, the first in the country.

    McKee gave initial insights into his perspective on the reform in January, saying that, “It’s time that [legalization] happens” and that he’s “more leaning towards an entrepreneurial strategy there to let that roll that way.”

    House Speaker Joseph Shekarchi (D), meanwhile, has said he’s “absolutely” open to the idea of cannabis legalization but also leans toward privatization.

    “I certainly do think we’ll act on the issue, whether it’s more private or more state.”

    Late last year, the Senate Finance Committee began preliminary consideration of legalization in preparation for the 2021 session, with lawmakers generally accepting the reform as an inevitability. “I certainly do think we’ll act on the issue, whether it’s more private or more state,” said Sen. Ryan Pearson (D) at the time.

    The growing momentum in Rhode Island also comes as lawmakers in neighboring Connecticut are also moving toward legalizing marijuana this year. Gov. Ned Lamont (D) included a cannabis legalization plan in his budget request last month, though advocates have been critical of several provisions, particularly as they concern social equity and home cultivation.

    Nearby states have also seen drug decriminalization bills introduced this legislative session, including one this month in Vermont. That bill would reduce penalties to a $50 fine or a referral to a health screening. “We continue to treat drug abusers as criminals when they should just be patients,” one of the bill’s sponsors, Rep. Logan Nicoll (D), told Marijuana Moment.

    Legislators in CaliforniaConnecticut, Florida, Hawaii, Kansas, MissouriNew YorkWashington State and Virginia have also introduced drug policy reform bills during the 2021 session.

    A Republican in Iowa, one of an increasing number of GOP lawmakers taking a direct role in drug reform, introduced a bill to remove psilocybin from the list of controlled substances and filed another piece of legislation to let seriously ill patients use psychedelic mushrooms, LSD, DMT and other drugs.

    In New York, lawmakers are considering both a measure to decriminalize drugs and a separate bill that would decriminalize psilocybin and psilocin, the chief psychoactive components in psychedelic mushrooms.



    Photograph via Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons 2.0

    This story was originally published by Marijuana Moment, which tracks the politics and policy of cannabis and drugs. Follow Marijuana Moment on Twitter and Facebook, and sign up for its newsletter.

    • Ben is a writer and editor covering cannabis since 2011, including as a senior news editor for Leafly. He is currently senior editor at Marijuana Moment. He lives in Seattle.

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