PROVIDENCE,RI – Marijuana is turning into a popular topic up on Smith Hill. Committees in the General Assembly reviewed four separate pieces of legislation concerning the drug in the past two weeks. We're joined by Rhode Island Public Radio's health care reporter Megan Hall to explain what these bills are and what they would do.
Dave: Thanks for coming in Megan
MEGAN: No problem Dave
Dave: So the marijuana bills concern everything from legalizing the drug to tweaking the state's medical marijuana program. Tell us more about what they would do.
Megan: So, these bills can be split into two categories- legislation concerning the state's medical marijuana program which allows some patients to legally use the drug for health problems- and legislation around our laws for people who use marijuana recreationally.
Dave: Let's start with the bills about marijuana in general.
Megan: A group of lawmakers believe the state wastes valuable time and resources punishing people who use marijuana. They say the drug does no more harm than alcohol and police officers have more important things to do than throw people into prison for smoking a joint.
Dave: So what do they propose?
Megan: Ideally, they'd like to legalize marijuana. That's one of the bills that was before the House Judiciary Committee last Wednesday. The legislation spells out how the state could regulate the drug, only allowing people over the age of 21 to use it, and charging a hundred dollars per plant for residents who want to grow their own small supplies of marijuana.
Dave: But what's the likelihood that lawmakers will pass this bill?
Megan: Exactly. The chances are pretty slim. Even the sponsors of the bill admit that. My guess is this legislation is out there to make a statement about where some advocates think the state should be. That's why the same lawmakers are introducing another bill that's a little less extreme.
Dave: Tell us about that one.
Megan: This is a piece of legislation that would decrease penalties for Rhode Islanders with small amounts of marijuana- an ounce or less. Instead of facing jail time, users would give up their stash and pay a $150 dollar fine. Supporters say this would prevent small offenders from having criminal records and save the prison and courts system a lot of money.
Dave: This sounds similar to the law in Massachusetts that decriminalized marijuana.
Megan: Exactly, it's based on that law. And supporters of the bill say since the sky hasn't fallen in the Bay State, it's giving their colleagues some confidence that we could try this in Rhode Island.
Dave: Is anyone opposed to this bill?
Megan: There's been some concerns from youth drug prevention advocates who say decriminalizing marijuana will make it seem less risky for young people.
Dave: Does this bill have a chance?
Megan: I'm hearing that it has a better chance than it did last year. But it all depends on the chair of the Judiciary Committee. It's his call if the bill comes up for a vote to get it onto the house floor.
Dave: Let's talk about the other bills concerning medical marijuana.
Megan: Ok, the first piece of legislation has already gotten a fair amount of attention. It's an attempt to allow the state's medical marijuana dispensaries to open. If you remember, these so called compassion centers were supposed to be up and running last year, but threats from the U.S. Attorney about potential raids and federal prosecution made Governor Lincoln Chafee put the process on hold.
Dave: So, how would this bill help the compassion centers open?
Megan: It works this way- the stores can open but they have to accept new limits on how much marijuana they can have on site.
Dave: What's the limit?
Megan: We don't know. The legislation leaves that up to the Department of Health, which has compassion centers folks feeling nervous. They say they're willing to follow a number as long as it's reasonable. Also, they'd rather have the limit be on the number of plants they can grow instead of the amount of marijuana.
Dave: What's the concern? Do they worry that they'll be penalized for having a good crop?
Megan: Yes, They wonder if they would need to throw away anything over the limit. It's easier to count plants than weigh or measure crop.
Dave: Will it pass?
Megan: It's very likely it will, especially with the support of the Governor and legislative leaders. I think there might be people who want to tweak the language, but otherwise it has a lot of support.
Dave: Which brings us to the last medical marijuana bill. Megan: Ok, this one was created with the Attorney General's office. It has a lot of different elements, but the main idea is it's an attempt to prevent people from abusing the program. The bill has patients and caregivers scanned for drug related felonies not just on the state level but through national databases as well. It also puts limits on how many people can grow together in the same space.
Dave: What do medical marijuana advocates think of this bill?
Megan: What I'm hearing is they also want to clean up the program, but they don't necessarily agree with the Attorney General's approach.
Dave: So, will patients fight the bill or prevent it from passing?
Megan: The Attorney General's office describes the legislation as a work in progress. Patient advocates are offering feedback, so the bill will hopefully evolve into something both sides can support.
Dave: What happens next?
Megan: We're waiting to see what the House and Senate committees do with these pieces of legislation. If committee members don't approve of the bills, the legislation won't make it to the floor of the General Assembly. If they do, we'll have more to talk about.
Dave: Well, we'll look forward to hearing your updates as the process moves forward. Thanks for the explanation Megan. Megan: My pleasure Dave.
Read more about the marijuana legislation on Smith Hill here.
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