Rhode Island has become the latest in a string of states to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana. The nation’s smallest state officially put the policy into effect on April 1, with marijuana dispensaries set to open in the near future. According to the new law, possession of less than one ounce of marijuana for personal use will result in a $150 ticket, with no additional jail time.
Legalization More Popular Than Ever Before
The decriminalization implements a law passed last year and comes on the tail of a groundswell of support for the measure. According to a PPP pollreleased at the beginning of this year, 65% of Rhode Islanders supported decreasing penalties for possession, with support crossing party lines (the most hesitant group on this front were independents, 60^ of which supported the measure. Republicans supported decreased penalties by 65%. In addition to the state, national support for legalization is also hitting record highs. According to a study released by the Pew Research Center earlier this month, the move is in accord with a simple majority of the nation—52% of Americans now say they favor legalization of marijuana.
Potential Crime Reduction From Drug Legalization
Those who support the efforts are not stopping at decriminalization. Democratic Rhode Island State Senator Donna Nesselbush told her colleaguesearlier this month that legalization would “reduce crime, weaken gangs and cartels and allow our hard-working law enforcement officials to focus on serious and/or violent crime.” She is sponsoring legislation that would lead to a full legalization of the drug, on par with the current laws on the books in Colorado and Washington.
RI Following MA Example
The push for legalization has also swept Massachusetts, with 63% of voters approving of the measure in a November 2012 referendum. The Massachusetts courts have also weighed in on the issue, recently declaring sharing of a marijuana cigarette to not be a crime. According to the Boston Globe, the court has also further clarified that, as a civil infraction, individuals cannot be prosecuted for the consumption of marijuana.
Federal Law Still Overrides
While legalization and decriminalization at the state level has had an impact in the states that have passed such laws, marijuana remains a Schedule I drug under the federal Controlled Substances Act. This means that possession continues to be a federal crime for which the Drug Enforcement Agency or other federal administration could file charges. With that in mind, the current Department of Justice has recommended that federal agencies restrict their use of resources to areas where the drug has not been decriminalized or legalized, but that does not mean that federal entities do not have the power to target or arrest individuals who break the Controlled Substances Act with a drug legal under state law.
The relationship between drug legalization and other crimes has also been called into question, with many arguing that arresting and imprisoning individuals for drug use has an adverse effect on populations already struggling due to poverty and violent crime. A recent study of the Massachusetts prison system has also found that drug crimes contribute significantly to overpopulation of prisons and recidivism among offenders – see my previous article on drug related crime rates.