A Rhode Island Senate panel last week heard initial testimony on legislation that would end criminal penalties for possessing small amounts of drugs and replace them with a $100 fine. The bill is one of a handful of drug reform measures now working their way through the state legislature alongside separate proposals to legalize marijuana that have been filed by the governor and top lawmakers.
“The goal of this bill is to remove criminal charges from narcotic and opioid possession and in place have civil violations, drug counseling programs and community service,” sponsor Sen. Tiara Mack (D), told the Senate Judiciary Committee, which heard testimony but took no action on the bill. “When we decriminalize, we find that people are more likely to come out of the shadows and seek help.”
Mack’s bill, S. 604, was one of two measures the panel heard Thursday that would reduce the state’s current felony charge for simple drug possession. A competing measure, S. 188, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Michael McCaffrey (D) and backed by state Attorney General Peter Neronha (D), would make possession of small amounts of controlled substances a misdemeanor.
“I honestly do not believe in incrementalism. I think we need sweeping changes right now.”
Rhode Island lawmakers are separately considering the establishment of safe consumption sites in an effort to stem an onslaught of overdose deaths that has only gotten worse during the pandemic. The state Senate last month passed legislation that would legalize what the bill calls “harm reduction centers,” defined as “community based resource[s] for health screening, disease prevention and recovery assistance where persons may safely consume pre-obtained controlled substances.”
If the House passes a companion bill and the governor signs the legislation, Rhode Island would be the first U.S. state to legalize the sites, which advocates say could prevent overdose deaths and destigmatize substance use disorders.
Mack introduced her drug decriminalization bill on the same day Gov. Dan McKee (D) unveiled a plan to legalize marijuana for adult use through his 2022 budget proposal. Legislative leaders have also introduced their own measure to legalize and regulate commercial cannabis. Both plans to end cannabis prohibition are set to be heard alongside a number of medical marijuana bills Thursday afternoon in a joint meeting of the Senate Finance and Judiciary committees.
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“Decades of empirical evidence from around the world has shown that reducing and eliminating criminal penalties for drug possession does not increase rates of drug use or crime, but it also has a drastic effect in reducing addiction, overdose and HIV/AIDS,” Mack told the Senate panel in support of her decriminalization bill. “Today, as overdose deaths skyrocket all over the U.S., people are in need of drug treatment. They might avoid this treatment because of the criminalization associated with their drug use.”
“Criminalizing drugs often hurts families and communities,” she added. “A criminal record will prevent job security housing and opportunities for a lifetime, often across multiple generations.”
In an interview with Marijuana Moment, Mack said the decriminalization proposal is part of her goal as a first-time legislator during a pandemic of starting conversations around the need for holistic, people-focused policies. “We know that drug use…is not an isolated problem,” she said, noting that substance misuse disorders and overdose deaths often correlate with inadequate access to housing, affordable healthcare or other basic needs.
“One of the things I really wanted to focus on was the Black and brown communities in particular when it comes to the criminalization and the war on drugs,” Mack said. “It’s part of my people-centered policy—making sure I’m looking at the people involved and real solutions, and not just ways to enact crime and further punishment.”
While she acknowledged that she’s “had some conversations” with Senate Majority Leader McCaffrey about his competing defelonization proposal and “this is one of the topics that I’ve been texting him about,” she said the pandemic has made it difficult to discuss the issue fully. “I see my colleagues once a week.”
Asked whether she’d support the more modest proposal, Mack replied: “I honestly do not believe in incrementalism.”
“I think we need sweeping changes right now,” she continued. “It’s really easy to stop at the first step and turn around, or stop at the first step and feel like we’ve accomplished something.”
As for the proposal to legalize safe consumption sites in the state, “I’m in full support of that bill,” Mack said.
In comments both to the Senate panel and Marijuana Moment, Mack explained that she was inspired by the global movement to reframe drug disorders as a health issue rather than a criminal problem, pointing to examples such as Portugal and more recently Oregon, which eliminated criminal penalties for drug possession and instead focused on treating drug use disorders.
In both jurisdictions, decriminalization coincided with substantial investment in outreach, treatment and recovery services. Mack said in Rhode Island, those programs could be expanded through tax revenue from legal marijuana or by a tax on the top 1 percent of people in terms of income.
As for cannabis legalization, Mack urged colleagues to emphasize social justice, particularly for Black and brown people, who’ve been subject to overcriminalization and discrimination under existing drug laws. “We can put a pretty bow and say we’re going to reserve X amount of licenses for these people, but if we’re only doing it for show and we’re not doing it to right the wrongs that have been done in these communities…then we’re not doing our due diligence,” she said.
Gov. McKee and leaders in the Senate are pushing competing versions of legislation to legalize marijuana, which differ on taxes, social equity provisions and how the new markets would be regulated. Both are notably different, however, from the plan put forward by former Gov. Gina Raimondo (D) prior to her leaving office to join the Biden administration, which would have created the country’s first system of state-run cannabis stores.
McKee gave initial insights into his perspective on the reform in January, saying that “it’s time that [legalization] happens” and that he’s “more leaning towards an entrepreneurial strategy there to let that roll that way.”
Late last year, the Senate Finance Committee began preliminary consideration of legalization in preparation for the 2021 session, with lawmakers generally accepting the reform as an inevitability. “I certainly do think we’ll act on the issue, whether it’s more private or more state,” Sen. Ryan Pearson (D) said at the time.
The growing momentum in Rhode Island also comes as lawmakers in neighboring Connecticut are also moving toward legalizing marijuana this year as Gov. Ned Lamont (D) pushes a competing reform. Advocates have been critical of several provisions, particularly around social equity and home cultivation.
Nearby states have also seen drug decriminalization bills introduced this legislative session, including one this month in Vermont. That bill would reduce penalties to a $50 fine or a referral to a health screening. “We continue to treat drug abusers as criminals when they should just be patients,” one of the bill’s sponsors, Rep. Logan Nicoll (D), told Marijuana Moment.
In New Jersey, meanwhile, Gov. Phil Murphy said last week that he’s “open-minded” on decriminalizing all drugs.