Twenty people arrested by Barrington police for possession of marijuana-first offense this year would have only been levied a fine if a new law that decriminalizes small amounts of the substance had been in place since January.
According to information provided by the local police department, there were 24 total arrests for possession of marijuana-first offense between Jan. 1 and June 22, 2012. Of these arrests, four reportedly involved instances with possession of marijuana exceeding one ounce, though not by much.
This single ounce threshold is a crucial element of amended marijuana laws that officially take effect as of April 2013.
According to a Rhode Island General Assembly press release, the new law eliminates the criminal charge for carrying one ounce or less of marijuana. Instead, it imposes a civil penalty of a $150 fine, plus forfeiture of the drug. A third offense within 18 months of a previous offense would be treated as a misdemeanor. The new law states that offenders who are minors will also be required to complete an approved drug awareness program and community service.
Under the previous law, possession of any amount of marijuana was a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in prison and up to a $500 fine.
The legislation was passed by the General Assembly in June, after failing to receive passage during the 2011 and 2010 sessions. It was subsequently signed into law by Gov. Lincoln Chafee.
Locals split on the issue
A number of local officials are not on board with the change.
In the Senate, the matter was passed by a 28-6 tally with four members not voting. In the House of Representatives, the matter was approved 43-19 with 13 members not voting.
Among the dissenting voices were two of Barrington’s General Assembly members: Rep. Jan Malik (D-Dist. 67, Barrington, Warren) said the new regulations could provide a loophole for dealers looking to avoid a criminal offense.
“What makes it any different than when I was a kid? What has changed now?” asked Rep. Malik rhetorically.
“It seems like the world has gone upside down. You’re finding laws to get rid of Coca Cola, chips, stuff like that, but we’re decriminalizing marijuana.”
Sen. David Bates (R-Dist. 32, Barrington, Bristol) also voted against the proposal.
“I think it sends the wrong message to our youth … That if you have a small amount, don’t worry about it,” he said.
“I don’t think it’s a good idea to pass this law.”
Barrington’s remaining General Assembly member, Rep. Joy Hearn (D-Dist. 66, Riverside, Barrington) voted in support of the legislation. She said the new law brings Rhode Island in line with Connecticut and Massachusetts, which have adopted similar measures. Rep. Hearn also said the shift should save on court expenses and cut down on prison population.
Rep. Hearn said she did a struggle with the potential that the legislation might lead some to think marijuana use is permitted but decided to cast her support for the matter because three violations within an 18 month period will still trigger a misdemeanor.
Kathy Sullivan, executive director of The BAY Team, echoed the sentiment that passage of the legislation sends a wrong message to local youth. BAY Team representatives were among those who advocated against passage of the law.
Ms. Sullivan said the change in penalties could make young people feel that marijuana is safer than it actually is. The challenge, said Ms. Sullivan, is to educate parents, students and community leaders about the risks and dangers associated with the substance.
Even without the decreased penalties, a recent study by the BAY Team indicates a shift in the number of local youth who find the drug dangerous. According to a study conducted during the 2011 school year, 82 percent of Barrington Middle School students and 28 percent of Barrington High School students perceived a risk of “great harm” from regular marijuana use. Both these figures were decreases from a similar survey conducted in 2009, falling from 85 and 47 percent, respectively.
The study also found that 30 percent of students believe it is “very easy” to get marijuana, up from 24 percent two years earlier. Furthermore, the study states that while marijuana use had not increased overall at Barrington High School, there is concern that particular classes are using at higher rates than in the past.
As ninth-graders, for example, the Class of 2014 had a “much higher usage rate” than the Class of 2012 reported as freshman in 2009.
Ms. Sullivan added she thinks some people are misinformed about the exact nature of the change, believing the new law legalizes the drug as opposed to decriminalizing possession of small amounts.
“We’re trying to decode decriminalization,” she said.
“It’s a restructuring of the penalties from the criminal to the civil domain but the drug is still illegal.”
Ms. Sullivan said the BAY Team uses several avenues for getting the group’s message out to the community. This includes delivering information to students through health class and working with student assistance counselors to deliver information through advisory periods. The group also works with school parent-teacher groups, among other initiatives.
One example of the BAY Team’s efforts is a new prevention curriculum being crafted with input from school health teachers. Delta 9, as the program is known, is funded by a State Block Grant on the Prevention of Marijuana use.
Barrington Police Chief John Lacross also has concerns with the legislation. For starters, he said purchasing illegal substances can be a dangerous process. Unlike alcohol, which is regulated, those purchasing marijuana might not know if it has been laced with another substance.
Reducing the penalty for possessing the drug from a criminal to a status offense, said Chief Lacross, could increase the number of individuals willing to experiment with the substance.
Chief Lacross also said some local students have already reported less of a concern with driving under the influence of marijuana compared with driving under the influence of alcohol.
Much like Ms. Sullivan, Chief Lacross stressed the importance of providing education on the subject prior to next April. The chief said he intends to work with the BAY Team, school administrators and others to remind local youth and the public at large that marijuana is ultimately still an illegal drug.