2013-04-11 / Front Page

Marijuana now decriminalized

Is the new law sending the wrong message to teens?
By Tim Riel

Unaware motorists may have thought they were the butt of an April Fools’ joke: getting pulled over for speeding, forgetting there was a bag of weed lying on the passenger seat in plain sight, and then being allowed to drive away with two citations – one for speeding, one for marijuana possession.

No handcuffs. No arrest record. No name in the newspaper.

The change that went into effect on April Fools’ Day was no joke. Legislation passed by the General Assembly and signed into law by Gov. Lincoln Chafee in June 2012 took effect two weeks ago, decriminalizing the possession of up to an ounce of marijuana.

As long as offenders are adults, possession of the drug for first and second offenses is now a civil violation of $150, just like a ticket. The cases have even transferred from district court to the Rhode Island Traffic Tribunal. However, three such violations in 18 months is a misdemeanor with larger fines and possible jail time. Offenders under the age of 18 will have their parents notified. The juveniles will have to complete court-ordered community service and complete a drug-awareness program.

Rhode Island is the 15th state to enact the decriminalization of marijuana.

Jamestowner Laura Hosley, who has spent her life educating children about the dangers of drugs, says the new law is disheartening.

“I don’t want to see people locked up for marijuana, but I don’t want kids to think it’s no big deal,” said Hosley, director of prevention for the Rhode Island Student Assistance Services. “That’s what I see happening. That’s the direction I see it going. It bothers me.”

Hosley believes the bottom line is money. She says the decriminalization is the second step by marijuana lobbyists, following medical marijuana but before legalization.

“The push is from a national organization and the reason is money,” she said. “There is a lot of money in growing and selling marijuana. I don’t think there was a lot of thought going into the decision. It was a push from the outside and the state rushed to a decision.”

One of the group’s she is talking about is the Marijuana Policy Project, a national organization whose big-picture goal is to legalize and tax marijuana like alcohol. Representatives say the project’s objective is to fix the legal system, not make a profit. They say the marijuana prohibition has failed and believe the greatest harm to marijuana users is prison, not the drug itself.

“Nobody should be subject to life-altering criminal penalties simply for using a substance that is objectively less harmful than alcohol,” said Robert Capecchi, deputy director for the Marijuana Policy Project. “Repealing criminal penalties for marijuana possession slows the bleeding, but repealing marijuana prohibition will heal the wound.”

As it stands now, there is a bill in the state House that would make the possession of limited amounts of marijuana legal for adults 21 and older. The legislation would establish a system where it would be taxed similarly to alcohol.

“It is time for Rhode Island to put the failed policy of marijuana prohibition behind us and adopt a more sensible approach just as our nation did with alcohol 80 years ago,” said state Rep. Edith Ajello, who introduced the bill in February.

While legalization is still an uphill battle for supporters, Hosley said her organization’s goal is to push back. Hosley said research shows marijuana use affects learning, memory and motivation. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration agrees – the federal government still considers marijuana is still a schedule-I drug.

“The issue is that the state is sending a message that there is a low perception of harm with marijuana,” said Hosley. “It’s also going to become more accessible for kids, and kids who become daily users are going to have problems in the future.”

Police Chief Ed Mello agrees with Hosley that the decriminalization is sending the wrong message to children.

“Of great concern to me is the message of tolerance that is being conveyed to our youth,” he said. “In several of my conversations with juveniles, they believe that marijuana is being legalized. This is the wrong message to send to them. We should not be telling our children it is OK to use a drug that is not regulated and has unknown consequences and health risks.”

Mello thinks the legal system isn’t prepared for such a change. He says the courts and police officers are not trained for the increases he anticipates of drivers under the influence of marijuana.

Rhode Island Student Assistance Services sent a one-page letter to parents following the decriminalization warning them that marijuana isn’t safe for teenagers, despite the mixed message that may be coming from lawmakers at the State House. Hosley’s organization is a statewide group with counselors in 18 middle schools and 24 high schools. It represents 18 districts, with the goal of steer ing youngsters away from tobacco, alcohol and other drugs, including marijuana. Lawn Avenue School has a counselor who sees students individually and assists in teaching evidence-based curriculum on substance-abuse prevention.

“The vast majority of Lawn students aren’t smoking pot, but it’s important to talk to them while they’re young,” she said.

Hosley said that along with Student Assistance Services, there is a good foundation for educating youngsters about substance abuse on the island. She mentioned the Juvenile Hearing Board and the teen center, among others.

“Jamestown looks good compared to statewide statistics,” she said.

Last year Jamestown police arrested 23 people for misdemeanor possession of marijuana. Five were juveniles. Since April 1, officers have yet to issue a citation under the new law.

“Anything that hurts kids I’m against,” said Hosley. “We should want them to be safe and healthy. That’s why we’re fighting back.”

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