A group of Rhode Island lawmakers unveiled a novel approach to drug-law reform in the State Senate. Six Democratic senators introduced a bill that would replace criminal penalties for drug possession with a $100 civil fine. The goal of the measure is simply to stop arresting people for possessing drugs.
The decriminalization bill arrived amid a flurry of reform legislation in Rhode Island. Senate leaders are pushing their commercial Cannabis bill and Gov. Dan McKee recently introduced a competing adult-use plan. Former Gov. Gina Raimondo had her own legal pot proposal before leaving office to become President Biden’s Commerce Secretary. Raimondo favored a state-run marijuana industry, while McKee – who took her place – and the Senate leaders prefer a privatized commercial system.
While the decrim bill would not legalize drugs or establish a retail program, it would address one of the most pressing issues users face; Possession of small amounts of drugs can lead to big penalties – as much as three years in prison and thousands of dollars in fines. The new legislation would eliminate the threat of jail time, replacing penalties for possession with a simple $100 civil fine.
Of course, you wouldn’t get to keep your drugs if you get caught. The substances would be subject to seizure by law enforcement. And, naturally, there would be no protections for the manufacture or distribution of narcotics. Nonetheless, the drug decrim bill could have a positive impact on many lives if passed.
Rhode Island lawmakers are also considering legislation to establish safe consumption sites, which could greatly reduce drug overdose deaths. The law would allow “harm reduction centers … where persons may safely consume pre-obtained controlled substances.” The Senate has already passed the bill. Should it become law, Rhode Island would be the first state to legalize sites for safe consumption.