RI should approve Miller bill on pot decriminalization

PROVIDENCE, RI – It's been 40 years since President Richard Nixon declared a national war on drugs. WRNI political analyst Scott MacKay wonders if the marijuana skirmish in this battle is still worth fighting in Rhode Island.

Rhode Island is once again out of synch with our New England neighbors on an important social policy: the way our criminal laws treat users of small amounts of marijuana.

Connecticut recently joined Massachusetts in de-criminalizing an ounce or less of marijuana, but our state continues to resist this sensible reform.

A Rhode Island state Senate Commission estimated that state government could save more than $11 million by decriminalizing marijuana, but legislation that would accomplish that is hung up at the General Assembly. As if a state government that has raised taxes to pay for such basic needs as schools and medical care for children can afford to blow millions prosecuting petty marijuana possession.

Providence doctor Josiah Rich, writing in the New England Journal of Medicine, reminds us what our `war on drug' policies have wrought: an epidemic of incarceration of too many people whose problems are largely medical, rather than criminal. Jails are designed to punish people and keep them away from the rest of us, not treat the medical problem of addiction.

By shifting the burden of care for addiction and mental illness to prisons, we are spending billions nationally and millions on the state level. Our state Department of Corrections estimates that at least 70 percent of inmates at the Adult Correctional Institutions have a significant history of substance abuse.

Marijuana criminalization has bred a climate much like the Prohibition of alcohol early in the 20th Century. Prohibition turned off the legal spigot, but liquor flowed as if our state was the stage for one of Jay Gatsby's parties.

Rhode Island was one of the nation's most anti-Prohibition states: we were one of only two states that never ratified the 18th Amendment. (The other was Connecticut).

Something eerily similar is happening today with pot. In some neighborhoods it is as easy to purchase marijuana as beer or cigarettes, which arguably cause more health problems and criminal mischief.

Who profits from our misguided drug policies? Only the drug dealers and their underworld financiers . And, of course, a slew of special interests. Call it the prosecutor, defense lawyer, correctional guard, police, industrial complex. Once again, the taxpayer is left paying for too much of this.

Contrast the cost of all of these lawyers and jailers with Alcoholics Anonymous, a free addiction treatment program with a history of success.

Things have changed since Nixon left office. The last three presidents have acknowledged they smoked marijuana.

And our state has been at the forefront of legalizing medical marijuana to help reduce pain in people with such serious illnesses' as cancer, multiple sclerosis and AIDS. So why does Rhode Island continue to prosecute people for possession of small amounts of pot?

Lawmakers could do us a favor in the waning days of the Assembly session by joining our New England neighbors in approving the pot decriminalization measure sponsored by Sen. Josh Miller of Cranston. (Rep. Jay Edwards has a similar measure pending in the House)

Scott MacKay's commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:35 and 8:35. You can also follow his political analysis and reporting at the `On Politics' blog at WRNI.org, which he co-authors with WRNI's Ian Donnis.

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