Rhode Island became the 14th state to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana on today, as a 2012 law begins to take effect. Under the new Rhode Island code, possession of less than one ounce of marijuana will be punishable only by a $150 fine akin to an expensive parking ticket, with no associated jail time.
Decriminalization effectively reduces the collateral consequences of the drug war, as even arrests for minor amounts can have life-altering effects. As The New York Times’ Jim Dwyer put it in a critical review of New York City’s marijuana crackdown, “People regularly lose jobs for missing work as they wait to see a judge or because their employers do not want anyone connected with even minor drug offenses on the payroll…’They’re clogging the courts and ruining people’s lives, in terms of potential collateral consequences for housing, employment, immigration,’ said Steven Banks, the attorney in chief of the Legal Aid Society.” Dwyer also notes that the vast majority of people arrested for minor marijuana violations (nearly 90 percent in NYC) are black or Latino. Studies show that decriminalization of marijuana and other recreational drugs in Portugal was a success on both public health and crime prevention grounds.
While Rhode Island’s new policy will effectively reduce these unhelpful arrests (after California’s marijuana decriminalization law went into effect, youth crime dropped to levels unseen since 1954), it won’t address all of the drug war’s consequences. So long as the production and distribution of marijuana is illegal, gangs and cartels will remain the core providers, funding gang violence in the United States and the cartel war in Mexico that has claimed 60,000 lives in the past six years.
Decriminalization may only be Rhode Island’s first step in slowing down its state level drug-war. There’s currently a bill under consideration in the statehouse to fully legalize marijuana, something that 52 percent of Rhode Islanders (in one poll) support.