Marijuana: ‘It’s illegal and it’s a drug’

barrington-police-cruiser - stockimage

barrington-police-cruiser - stockimage

Possessing a small amount of marijuana no longer carries a criminal charge in Rhode Island but local officials don’t want young people to think that means the drug is safe.

Especially driving under the influence of marijuana.

A report issued by the BAY Team and several similar groups last spring states that marijuana use causes decreased attention, slower reaction time and a decreased ability to track objects.

“It’s a concern I have about their safety,” Barrington Police Chief John LaCross said last week.

“If they’re going to experiment on their own, that’s their choice but when they get behind the wheel, I’m going to stand fast to the law.”

The law, as of April 1 in Rhode Island, states that anyone caught with less than one ounce of marijuana now faces a status offense versus a misdemeanor.

Instead of a date in District Court, an arrest photo and an arrest record, those found in violation of the law will receive a summons to the Rhode Island Traffic Tribunal and a $150 fine for a first offense, similar to speeding ticket.

Police can still charge someone with a misdemeanor if they are found with marijuana three times within 18 months or possess more than one ounce of marijuana at any time. Those under 18 who violate the law also face parental notification, community service and completion of a drug awareness program.

Chief LaCross said small amounts of marijuana, or less than one ounce, account for roughly 70 to 90 percent of the police department’s marijuana cases. He said officers receive training to recognize what an ounce looks like though any amount seized can be weighed for verification.

The chief also said police still have the right to search a vehicle if they smell marijuana because although small amounts may not carry a criminal charge, marijuana is still illegal, as is driving under the influence of alcohol of drugs.

“Naturally, making it a status offense, some of these young people are going to think it’s legal and it’s not. It’s illegal and it’s a drug,” Chief LaCross said.

He added police can still administer field sobriety tests to any driver believed to be operating under the influence and while there is no breathalyzer equivalent for marijuana testing, Barrington, East Providence and Warren all have specialized Drug Recognition Experts who can recognize an individual under the influence of narcotics.

Important distinction

BAY Team Executive Director Kathy Sullivan said the distinction between decriminalization and outright legalization is an important one. The BAY Team has proliferated that message to local parents over the last several months through a variety of avenues including newsletters and parenting tips.

While the new law took effect April 1, it was passed into law last year giving Ms. Sullivan time to try and get out in front of the change.

“What we’ve tried to do is use our monthly parenting tips and our newsletter to educate parents and other community leaders about the effects [of marijuana],” Ms. Sullivan said.

“Our main message is to remind people that marijuana is still illegal in Rhode Island, it’s just that penalties will be changing. I think that’s our message, to remind parents that this is still a harmful substance and this is a good opportunity, depending on the age of their child, to talk to their child and use this as an opportunity to remind their sons or daughters what the risks are.”

Last spring, the BAY Team partnered with other East Bay coalitions to assemble a packet detailing the dangers of marijuana. The pamphlet touched on everything from long-term consequences such as the potential for mental health disorders, economic impacts such as higher rates on unemployment, the cost of marijuana and educational impacts such as impairing young people’s ability to concentrate and retain information.

The packet also stated an operator who used marijuana up to three hours before driving is twice as likely to cause a car crash resulting in serious injury or death as those not under the influence.

Closer look at the law

Rhode Island’s new marijuana laws officially took effect on Monday. Here are some details about the law:

- Possession of less than one ounce of marijuana is now a status offense versus a misdemeanor. First-time offenders will receive a $150 fine plus forfeiture of the drug.

- Possession of one ounce or more of marijuana will still result in a misdemeanor charge, punishable by up to one year in prison and a $500 fine.

- Individuals charged with marijuana possession three times within 18 months will be charged with a misdemeanor.

- Individuals under the age of 18 will have their parents notified. They will also be required to complete a drug awareness program and community service.

Local survey results

BAY Team official Kathy Sullivan said young people’s perception of marijuana-associated dangers nationally are on the decline, a trend mirrored locally in a 2011 BAY Team survey.

That study found that 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.

The study found 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 freshmen in 2009.

The BAY Team recently administered another survey though results won’t be available for a couple of months.

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