Lesser pot penalties start in RI

Rhode Island on Monday became the latest state to roll back criminal penalties for minor marijuana possession, replacing the threat of jail time for those caught with pot with something more like a traffic citation.

While it's still a criminal offense to drive while under the influence of marijuana, adults caught with an ounce or less of pot now face a $150 civil fine and a hearing at the state's traffic court. Minors will also be required to complete community service and a drug awareness class. The incident will not appear on an individual's criminal record, though anyone cited three times within 18 months will face misdemeanor charges.

Fourteen states have now decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana. Last year, Colorado and Washington went further, becoming the first American states to legalize the drug.

Advocates for changing marijuana policies applauded Rhode Island's new law at a Statehouse event Monday. Dr. David Lewis, a physician and Brown University professor who studies drug addiction, said criminal penalties for minor marijuana offenses are expensive, unnecessary and ineffective. He'd like to see the state go further in regulating marijuana.

"Rhode Island has taken a significant step in correcting what I think ... is an error in the law," he said. "I think we have a conversation going on right now in Rhode Island."

The law was passed last year but its enactment was delayed until April 1 to give police time to prepare. State Police Capt. John Lemont said officers in many departments have been trained on the new procedures for handling marijuana cases.

"It's not legalization, it's decriminalization. It's still a civil offense," Lemont said. "Essentially it's going to be a traffic ticket."

State Sen. Joshua Miller said the new law should free up law enforcement resources to go after more serious offenses - and ensure that individuals don't get a criminal record for a relatively minor pot bust. He said the old penalties for possession - $500 fines and possible jail time - "did more harm than good." The Cranston Democrat was one of the bill's main sponsors.

But state Rep. Jim McLaughlin, a Cumberland Democrat, said decriminalization sends the wrong message to teens and could ease the way for legalization. A bill to subject marijuana to alcohol-style regulations and taxes is pending in the General Assembly but is unlikely to pass this year.

"It's a mind-altering drug," he said. "We can't even handle our alcohol."